“Zodiac” is impossible to control, to pin down, to penetrate. It’s strong, unwieldy and creates its own idea of what a police procedural should be, a reinvention that avoids the genre’s customary indulgences while creating several of its own. It is much easier to describe than to discuss, probably because it speaks for itself so emphatically. I know I responded to it, but that makes it no easier to break down.

The film opens in 1968 and doesn’t stop jumping weeks, months and even years from there, at first the story of San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), in the film’s estimation a docile and drug-addled creature, and then moves on to a detective (Mark Ruffalo) and eventually a cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) who each take the reigns at the story’s convenience. The movie is captive to the mythology of the Zodiac and his era, every suspect and conversation and secret code. At times the film’s specificity is almost frightening; at others, it’s distant and enigmatic. It’s a strange and enthralling ride.

Let’s see what we can make of this. “Zodiac” is most urgently about obsession. The titular killer, hot property in the media culture of California in the late ’60s and early ’70s, was defined by his insatiable hunger for celebrity. The detectives assigned to find him, including in a way a Chronicle cartoonist who went on to write the definitive text about the crimes, threw themselves into the case with an intensity that nearly drove them mad (and arguably did). And then we have the film’s director, David Fincher (“Se7en,” “Panic Room,” “Fight Club”), who unwaveringly chronicles every mundane detail of Zodiac’s fleeting reign of infamy, and reinvents himself in the process.

What else? This is not a light picture, and no one will mistake it for one. It’s long (158 crammed minutes), it’s impossibly intricate and it’s so plain-stated that at times it’s unbearable to watch (the scenes of Zodiac’s killings are so terribly quiet). It also has comedic ambitions and is led by three strong performances by very different actors – Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. – that may be the most restrained and affable of their careers.

There is more to say, but it won’t get us any closer to the movie. When it comes down to it, to describe “Zodiac” as anything other than a masterwork would do injustice to its achievement, which is considerable, but such hyperbole suggests a perfection the film doesn’t attain. At the end of this thrilling, intimidating movie, we’re left in awe of its narrative innovation and yet also slightly disillusioned by it. “Zodiac” is a thorough and rigorous vision, but that leaves no breathing room, and thus the limitations of the storytelling are clear. The film sacrifices both the desire and the ability to surprise, and no matter what way you look at it, and that’s a bummer in any thriller, even one as controlled as this.

About that control. David Fincher has always had it, even in his lesser films, and he is a student of the thriller. His versatility within genre constraints is astonishing – he’s never going to make a Drew Barrymore movie, but no two of his films have more in common than their dark subjects. He shoots hope in the back of the head in “Se7en” and then cheerfully revives it with the taut theatrics of “The Game.” What unites his films is how precisely they achieve their diverse effects. He is an author, and “Zodiac” shows that creative reinvention is his lifeblood.

This is not Fincher’s best work – it’s too mystifying, too distant – but it’s always riveting, and that’s saying something for a movie as huge and staggering as this. It leaves no room for discussion, but then maybe that’s the point: The movie is called “Zodiac,” and it is Zodiac, his crimes, his essence. In that sense, the film is a masterwork. There’s no other way to describe it.

Zodiac

At Quality 16 and Showcase

Paramount

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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