Zodiac, The (2005)

Starring Justin Chambers, Robin Tunney, Rory Culkin, William Mapother, Phillip Baker Hall

Directed by Alexander Bulkley

I found it more than a bit odd when we were contacted by the PR company working with ThinkFilm that another movie about the infamous Zodiac Killer had just wrapped production, what with David Fincher’s own take on the tale rolling as we speak. I guess this sort of thing happens all the time, but rarely is the “other” film done with such an interesting cast or a decent budget like The Zodiac is. Unfortunately, neither of these things are able to help the film rise above anything more than a dull, confusing, sometimes brutal character study.

Newcomer Chambers stars as Sgt. Matt Parish, a detective working in the small California town of Vallejo, California during Christmas of 1968 when the killer claims his first victims. The film opens with the couple shot to death in cold blood and hints at a brutality that is only touched on briefly throughout the rest of the film, but does serve to keep things somewhat interesting when it does come about. If one were to stop and realize that this is all based on true events it becomes less interesting and more disturbing, but damnit this is entertainment so I won’t be heading down that path.

Parish is assigned the case by his boss (Hall), and immediately starts taking it very, very seriously. He comes home late, fixes himself a stiff drink, cuddles a bit with his wife (Tunney, looking far too young for the role), and broods. That’s pretty much all he does for the rest of the film; broods. When he’s not brooding he’s fighting with his wife about how he’s trying to make them safe but she’s upset because everyone’s scared (which seems to be the only thing she’s able to talk about with her husband), and he’s never home… the domestic disputes increase in their tenacity the more times the killer strikes without leaving a single clue behind. Parish is becoming more and more frustrated and eventually makes a career-ending mistake, which brings the entire film to a rather unfulfilling conclusion.

Rory Culkin plays Parish’s son, Johnny, and has a subplot all his own that is really never resolved in any satisfactory way, either. While looking through his father’s stacks of information on The Zodiac, Johnny discovers a pattern having to do with the change of seasons that the killer is following, but Parish refuses to listen to it, insisting theirs no “goddamn astrological connection” to the killer, despite the fact that the killer calls himself The Zodiac. To me it just seemed like a reason to cast a relatively familiar face to play the son, and you don’t want to give a role to Culkin and not have it feature any meat. Unfortunately, Rory seems incapable of expressing any sort of emotion whatsoever, even when his mother insists that they’re leaving because his father has gone off the deep end. Which, I might add, is another scene that goes nowhere and is never really mentioned again after it happens.

What the film does do right is it’s approach to the killer. Since The Zodiac Killer was never captured, his identity never revealed, it would have been foolish to try and base a story around the man and his actions (though it has been done before); the truth is nothing is really known about him other than that he was a great marksman and loved to taunt the cops. Every time there’s a killing The Zodiac is featured only from the neck down, with some occasional behind-the-head shots that indicate that he wears glasses. The only other details the filmmakers give you as to how the man works is the depiction of his home, which always seems to be in some perpetual dusk lighting and a bit dingy. That part is stereotypical serial killer, but since it’s not known whom the killer was, it’d be hard to come to a conclusion as to where and how he lived.

The voice acting for the killer is top-notch, both creepy and almost reassuring (which thusly makes it even more creepy) at the same time, and imbued with a distinct intelligence that I’m sure someone as diabolical as The Zodiac had to possess. The scenes with the killer doing his thing, either killing or messing with the cops, are the most memorable of the entire movie, which makes a sort of sense if you think about it because those are the scenes that had to be created pretty much from scratch by the filmmakers.

What The Zodiac wants to be is the story of America’s loss of innocence during the end of the 60’s by portraying the crumbling of the lives of those who were directly effected by the titular killer’s rampage. A less-than stable script and some questionable performances keep it firmly in the realm of direct-to-DVD fodder, however, which is a shame because there is a decent cast here and some very skilled cinematography. It’s case of the whole not being equal to the sum of it’s parts, unfortunately, and it’s likely you won’t be comparing it to Fincher’s take on the subject matter when it’s released later this year.

2 ½ out of 5

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