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Will Pfeifer: A brilliant look at the search for a killer

Will Pfeifer

Was “Zodiac” the best movie of 2007? Probably.

Did the bare-bones DVD released in the fall do it justice? Not really.

Was the new director’s cut two-disc set, which arrived in stores last week, worth the wait? Definitely.

“Zodiac,” director David Fincher’s complex look at the hunt for a murderer in 1970s San Francisco, isn’t like other serial killer movies. If “Zodiac” resembles anything, it’s “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 movie about a couple of average guys trying to put together a mystery and finding themselves lost.

In “Zodiac,” our focus isn’t on the killer. The murder scenes are quick, simple and, above all, unnerving. You get the feeling that this is how it would feel if you were there and saw someone take another person’s life.

In “Zodiac,” our focus is on the guys trying to find the killer: a reporter, a cartoonist and a pair of cops. We follow them as they chase down leads that don’t pan out, uncover clues that don’t mean anything and arrest men who might — might — be Zodiac. By the end of the film, they barely know more than they did at the beginning — and so do we.

And somehow, despite all those dead-end investigations and worthless leads, “Zodiac” is never less than mesmerizing. It’s a film about the process, not the results. Sure, you get a pretty good idea of who cartoonist Robert Graysmith thinks the killer was (played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Graysmith is the guy who wrote the books “Zodiac” is based on). But if you’re hoping for a big Hollywood ending where cop and killer have a dramatic standoff, you’re in the wrong movie. (“Zodiac” does refer to that exact movie, though, one based on the Zodiac killings and set in San Francisco. It was called “Dirty Harry.”)

The cast is solid, down to the smallest roles. Gyllenhaal is as close as the movie has to a central character, and he’s fine, but even better are his two mentors, troubled reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and dedicated cop Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo).

The most memorable performance in “Zodiac” comes from John Carroll Lynch. In “Fargo,” he played nice guy Normy, but he’s not nice here. Not at all.

Besides a disc of bonus features and two commentary tracks, the new “director’s cut” features some subtle changes in the film — mostly small scenes added and existing scenes extended. The most noteworthy addition is an audio montage that plays over a few minutes of black screen featuring news clips and song snippets and indicating the passage of four years. It’s an eerie, evocative pause in the movie and ends on a discomforting note: The last news clip announces New York police have caught the Son of Sam killer.

Too bad the cops in San Francisco weren’t that lucky.

Contact Will Pfeifer at wpfeifer@rrstar.com or 815-987-1244.