Since the passing/ascension of Stanley Kubrick, no director has better conveyed the impression of complete and utter cinematic dominance than David Fincher. (To mangle that creepy old Outer Limits intro, he controls the horizontal, the vertical, and darn near everything else.) However, there can be a downside to such supreme control. Awe inspiring as the work of both filmmakers can be, I sometimes find myself helplessly looking for some sign—a weaving extra, a sloppily painted wall —signaling that the picture was at some point touched by human hands.

Zodiac stands as the director's most impressive monolith to date, a sprawling, three-decade-spanning infodump that, for all its virtuosity, occasionally feels like being locked in the file cabinet of a conspiracy junkie. Adapted from Robert Graysmith's bestseller, James Vanderbilt's script follows the obsessive, dogged attempts of editorial cartoonist Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Police Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) to uncover the identity of Northern California's notorious Zodiac Killer. Surprisingly, the actual murders are dealt with in a few early scenes, leaving the lion's share of the 150-minute running time to explore seemingly every slim theory ever generated on the subject.

Make no mistake, Fincher's handling of such complex material is the work of a master. Still, somehow, the totality of such single-minded brilliance has a strange distancing effect, resulting in a film that's often easier to admire than it is to embrace. Thank the cosmos, then, for the presence of Robert Downey Jr., whose turn as San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery consistently finds ways to jump out of the film's predetermined groove. Fincher may have built the perfect procedural beast, but Downey, bless his heart, generates its pulse.