The Zodiac

on March 17, 2006 by Mark Keizer
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One of the great, unsolved serial murder cases, the late '60s Bay Area homicide spree perpetrated by the Zodiac Killer is drooling for proper, definitive, big-screen treatment. But Alexander Bulkley's "The Zodiac" plays like an unauthorized biography, a B-movie with just enough heft and factual accuracy to lull us into taking it seriously. Bulkley, who co-wrote the script with brother Kelly, has a unique angle to work: Here, the thrill of getting your man is replaced by the frustration of not getting your man. Yet the film barely achieves low boil, rendering it an under-realized account of how a patient, taunting and merciless killer paralyzed a small Northern California community.

In December 1968, a Vallejo, California teenage couple was brutally murdered during a date-night make-out session on lover's lane. Chief of Police Frank Perkins (Philip Baker Hall) assigns the case to investigator Matt Parish (Justin Chambers). With the killer leaving a pristine crime scene, Matt is hard-pressed for clues. The prospect of a murderer on the loose scares the townsfolk, including Matt's wife Laura (Robin Tunney) and their 12-year-old son, Johnny (Rory Culkin). The perpetrator waits months before striking again, this time at a July 4th gathering. As the body count rises and the killer begins anonymously confessing over the phone and sending coded letters to the local papers, Matt becomes distraught over his inability to make any headway.

The procedural aspects, as Matt follows his tissue-thin leads, are dutiful and rote. And as the movie continues, we begin to disconnect from Matt because he smells artificial (in fact, the law enforcement characters are all composites), compared to our confidence that the murderer's M.O. is being conveyed with reasonable authenticity. But even here, Bulkley takes the sleazy way out. Scenes of the Zodiac Killer assembling his creepy cryptograms and sharpening his knives are right out of a teen slasher flick, with nervous edits and whiplash sound.

The film's depiction of the Parish family, a microcosm of the town and the fear that gripped its residents, rarely vibrates with the necessary anxious, helpless energy. It takes over an hour before there's a halfway convincing domestic skirmish, as Matt complains that Laura has begun locking the front door at night, which is downright paranoid for the bygone time and place. But he fails to understand that she's scared for herself and for their son. Matt's investigation so preoccupies him that he begins ignoring Johnny, who starts an investigation of his own. The boy's sleuthing is a way to earn to his father's attention, but that dynamic is never fully explored. The last shot of the film, with Laura nervously putting Johnny on the school bus, is supposed to leave us unsettled. But the scene, and the emotion that accompanies it, should have come much earlier. Now it's just a cheap shot, a parting reminder that Freddie or Jason might be right around the corner.

As Matt, Justin Chambers (TV's "Grey's Anatomy") has empty eyes and GQ handsomeness that make it difficult to empathize with his inability to nab the killer. In the underwritten role of Johnny, Rory Culkin wafts around the edges of the story, his character never properly integrated. Also peripheral is William Mapother as a journalist using the case to bolster his career. Even the always reliable Philip Baker Hall seems off his game, hamstrung by the "we need proof, dammit!" brand of top cop dialogue.

Director David Fincher ("Seven") is currently working on a film about the Zodiac Killer starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal. And while you can't fault Bulkley for not having Fincher's Park Avenue budget, if Fincher's movie can't beat "The Zodiac," that would also qualify as one of this country's great, unsolved mysteries. Starring Justin Chambers, Robin Tunney and Rory Culkin. Directed by Alexander Bulkley. Written by Kelly Bulkley and Alexander Bulkley. Produced by Corey Campodonico. A Thinkfilm release. Crime drama. Rated R for strong violence and language. Running time: 98 min

Tags: Justin Chambers, Robin Tunney, Rory Culkin, Alexander Bulkley, Kelly Bulkley, Corey Campodonico, Thinkfilm, Crime Drama, Bay Area, Zodiac Killer, True Story
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