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Zodiac, The (2006)
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by The Ultimate Dancing Machine

"Sign of the times"
3 stars

They never did catch the Zodiac Killer. The legendary whackjob, who stomped around in a something like a homemade superhero outfit, complete with a distinctive zodiac insignia, terrorized the San Francisco area in the late '60s and early '70s. By the time he had--unaccountably--ended his rampage, he had killed anywhere from five people (the official tally) to thirty-seven (Zodiac's tally), with at least one expert claiming an even higher count. To this day, his identify remains unknown, though armchair detectives have named several possible culprits.

Considering how little is known about the Zodiac Killer, there's plenty of room for dramatic embellishment. But there's surprisingly little of that in THE ZODIAC, from first-time feature director Alexander Bulkley, which probably hews closer to the historical record than any other filmic adaptation of the case so far. In a sense this is commendable, considering that we all inevitably get a sizable chunk of our historical knowledge from films like this, however much we might like to think of ourselves as media sophisticates wise to the ways of Hollywood. (E.g., think of World War II, and images from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN immediately leap to mind.) For better or worse--I would argue for better AND worse--THE ZODIAC generally takes the just-the-facts road. The only murders depicted on screen are the five confirmed kills, no more; the words spoken by the Zodiac (heard in an incongruously calm, languid voiceover) are taken from actual letters he brashly sent to local newspapers; and when the actual letters themselves are shown, even the Zodiac's misspellings, you may notice, have been carefully reproduced.

But there are limitations to this kind of historical reconstruction. Filmmakers have traditionally taken liberties with history, not from negligence, but because it tends to create better drama. Here, the director's respect for factual detail seems to have created an analogous void in the storytelling department--he seems so intent on the history lesson that he sacrifices narrative concerns. Watching this film, you respect the director for not going for hoary, sensationalistic plot twists (e.g., The Confrontation in the Warehouse, et al.), but in a way THE ZODIAC suffers for it.

The film centers not on The Zodiac himself (whom we never see, expecting brief glimpses in which his face is obscured), but on a local police investigator, one Matt Parish (Justin Chambers). and his attempts to find the slippery killer. Parish isn't quite based on the true-crime files; he's a composite character inspired by those who worked on the case, and the same is true of his suffering wife (Robin Tunney) and inquisitive son (Rory Culkin). As far as dramatic license goes, Bulkley is on reasonably firm ground--that's not the problem. The problem is that he keeps stumbling headlong into police-procedural cliches: Chambers' descent into emotional collapse, as the Zodiac continues to elude him, seems straight out of every Obsessed Cop movie ever made; and like all Obsessed Cops, he has one of those by-the-book bosses who insist on proper protocol ("We have to play by the rules," he says).

There are times in the film where Bulkley seems to lose his way; when it's not being a cop movie, the film seems to be desperately trying to link the Zodiac Killer to the '60s zeitgeist. Take, for example, the bit where one of Zodiac's taunting letters is read before a TV crew--suddenly the scene detours into a montage with images from Vietnam to the tune of "Time Has Come Today." It comes off as a bit forced. The film's uncertainty is no more apparent than in its conclusion, in which little is resolved. Again, this is true to history, but makes for less than satisfying drama.

Where the film excels, apart from its attention to detail, is when it stops making vague points and simply focuses on its personalities. Bulkley has a good eye for character moments; when the rest of the family is in the living room excitedly watching the moon landing, Parish is, tellingly, discussing the investigation with his colleagues outside. In this, the director is well served by his cast; both Chambers and Tunney are quite good. And Bulkley is a competent director, who manages to infuse the movie with a suitably grimy, gritty feel without laying it on too thick.

The film is a respectable effort, all things considered; but it is more of a promise of things to come than a fully realized production in its own right.

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originally posted: 03/18/06 00:52:05
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  17-Mar-2006 (NR)



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