Mark Reviews Movies

Awakening the Zodiac


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jonathan Wright

Cast: Shane West, Leslie Bibb, Matt Craven, Nicholas Campbell, Kenneth Welsh, Stephen McHattie

MPAA Rating: R (for violence and language)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 6/9/17 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 8, 2017

The crackerjack premise of Awakening the Zodiac is that the self-proclaimed Zodiac Killer, who was confirmed to have killed five people in the final years of the 1960s but who claimed to have killed 37, filmed his attacks with an 8 mm camera. The serial killer has never been identified, so such evidence could be crucial to determining his identity. By the way, in the movie, the film reels are discovered in a small town in Virginia, which raises the question: How did those canisters get there all the way from San Francisco? Why are they suddenly appearing now, after being sold from a storage facility that went past-due on rent? Is the killer—cue the dramatic music—still out there?

This is good stuff, imagined by screenwriters Jennifer Archer, Mike Horrigan, and Jonathan Wright—the last of whom also directed the movie. It's one of those ideas that makes one perk up a bit as it reveals itself.

Astute readers will anticipate a "but" coming, and it would be a shame to disappoint those expectations. This is a solid concept for a story (Here it comes), but that's just the starting point of a movie. The whole here doesn't live up to the potential of that foundational idea.

The movie opens with a re-creation of one of the Zodiac's murders—an attack on a couple parked in a car on the side of a road overlooking San Francisco. The whole while, a camera whirs in the background of the soundtrack, and when the shooting is complete, the killer turns off the camera.

In the present day, Mick (Shane West) and Zoe (Leslie Bibb) live in a trailer park in Virginia. They had big dreams of success when they married, but now Mick mows lawns for meager cash, while Zoe worries about the bills. It doesn't help that Mick has an obsession with buying useless junk from various rummage sales with Harvey (Matt Craven), who runs a local antique shop.

Harvey thinks they've struck pay dirt this time. He invites the couple over to his shop and shows them one of the film reels he found in his and Mick's most recent buy. It's the murder, and the other canisters are labeled with dates that match up with either one of the Zodiac's confirmed crimes or another murder that went unsolved. There's a reward of $100,000 for any evidence that could lead to identifying the Zodiac, so now, all they have to do is figure out who had possession of those incriminating reels before they were put up for sale.

This part seems like a giant jump in logic, since surely the police would be able and willing to do this part of the work. One supposes that it's a necessary leap, though, otherwise there'd be no plot with these characters involved in it.

One of the movie's few, non-premise-related charms—as well as, perhaps, most of our willingness to accept some of the mistakes that these characters make—is that the three get to play the roles of amateur gumshoes, taking on a case that has bewildered so many law enforcement officials, journalists, and conspiracy theorists in the past. They're a scrappy bunch: Mick, whose temper is quick to flare, and Harvey, who has a military background that conveniently included code-making and code-breaking, and Zoe, who serves as the voice of reason (Their half of the reward isn't really that much under the circumstances, and her half of that shouldn't be worth her life in her husband's mind), until the thrill of the chase gets to her.

The chase is the usual game of following the clues, with a couple of them conveniently turning up when the characters need them. The most important of these is Harvey discovering the key to the cipher system that the Zodiac used. The screenplay makes two strange assumptions here: It assumes that people will know enough about the killer's history to know that he sent cryptograms to various newspapers in 1969, since the fact is never directly stated in the movie, but it also assumes that the same audience will have no idea what a cipher is (Harvey has to explain the idea of code-breaking to Zoe, which means that he's explaining it to us, of course).

This shorthanded approach to the history behind the story reveals the structure and plotting of the screenplay are far more generic than the setup suggests. Here, the Zodiac simply fills in the required motive for the characters to go through the motions. Their goal could be discovering any killer, really—real or fictional. The fact that their objective involves a genuine, unsolved case is an easy way to add weight to what is essentially a formula plot, filled with some paranoia, a few chases, and plenty of red herrings (all of whom, refreshingly, are distractions from the actual killer, who's an anonymous presence throughout).

Awakening the Zodiac gets points for its clever premise and Wright's ability to create some dread-inducing atmosphere. More significantly, though, the movie loses points for settling for the most conventional approach imaginable with the material at hand.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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