This review was written for the theatrical release of "Zodiac."

The notorious San Francisco Bay Area serial killer might have eluded law enforcement agencies for decades, but the compelling cat-and-mouse story that is "Zodiac" never escapes the virtuoso grip of director David Fincher.

Firing on all cylinders as a creepy thriller, police procedural and "All the President's Men"-style investigative newsroom drama, the smart, extremely vivid production oozes period authenticity.

Factor in a highly capable cast led by Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and a never better Robert Downey Jr., and you've got yourself a picture -- one that should handily nab audiences hungering for something a little more substantial than broad comedies or campy escapism.

Time and place are effectively established the first time we see the man known as Zodiac strike, during 1969 Fourth of July celebrations on a secluded lover's lane in Vallejo, Calif., where he walks up to a car and matter-of-factly fires at its occupants, fatally killing the driver and seriously injuring her male passenger.

Cut to the newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle, where, a month later, a crudely written letter to the editor arrives in the mail from the man claiming responsibility for that shooting and an additional two murders.

His knowledge of certain details that only the police would know captures the attention of the paper's star crime reporter Paul Avery (Downey Jr.), while an enclosed portion of a cipher that purportedly offered clues to the killer's identity triggers what would become a lifelong obsession for Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), a shy but intrepid editorial cartoonist who isn't content to live life on the sidelines.

Graysmith uses his not-so-spare time to work on cracking the code, when not hovering over the colorful Avery's desk trying to pick up additional shreds of information about the case.

Meanwhile, despite the dogged efforts of the San Francisco Police Department's high-profile homicide inspector, Dave Toschi (Ruffalo) and his partner, Inspector William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), the murders mount and the letters keep coming as the years continue to pass without an arrest.

Fincher, who, as a child growing up in the Bay Area in the early '70s was well aware of the bogey man known as the Zodiac killer, has transformed those primal childhood fears into his most accomplished film to date, and his most fully contained effort since 1995's "Seven."

While those murders are staged for maximum chill, the story's newsroom and police department settings are equally effective. Working from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt (who is working on a screen adaptation of "Against All Enemies," the memoir by former terrorism czar Richard Clarke), based on Graysmith's book, Fincher keeps all the components neatly integrated.

He also uses clever visual touches to mark the passing years, particularly a time-lapse sequence replicating the erection of San Francisco's iconic Transamerica Pyramid.

His cast is uniformly splendid, but if the Zodiac killer got away with murder, then Downey ought to be charged with grand theft larceny given how often steals his scenes away from his competent co-stars. It's a performance, along with Chris Cooper's in "Breach," that should be remembered when awards season comes around again.

While there are a few instances where the energy dips a bit in the 2 1/2-hour film (especially when Downey isn't around), things always manage to kick back into gear.

Behind the scenes, Harris Savides' digital photography really brings back the visual textures and color palettes of that late '60s-to-early '70s period, as does Donald Graham Burt's evocative production design and Casey Storm's costuming.

On the aural end, veteran composer David Shire takes on his first film assignment in several years with an appropriately moody score, while music supervisor Randall Poster deserves a special shout-out for a song selection that digs deeper than the usual top 10 offerings, incorporating psychedelic pop from the Animals, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Santana and Donovan to transporting effect.

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures present a Phoenix Pictures production of a David Fincher film
Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: James Vanderbilt
Based on the book by: Robert Graysmith
Producers: Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Bradley J. Fischer, James Vanderbilt, Cean Chaffin
Executive producer: Louis Phillips
Director of photography: Harris Savides
Production designer: Donald Graham Burt
Editor: Angus Wall
Costume designer: Casey Storm
Music: David Shire
Music supervisor: Randall Poster
Robert Graysmith: Jake Gyllenhaal
Inspector David Toschi: Mark Ruffalo
Paul Avery: Robert Downey Jr.
Inspector William Armstrong: Anthony Edwards
Melvin Belli: Brian Cox
Sgt. Jack Mulanax: Elias Koteas
Melanie: Chloe Sevigny
Running time -- 157 minutes
MPAA rating: R