The case of the Zodiac is one of the most disturbing in all of serial killer lore. He was a killer without a clear modus operandi, often switching his choice of weapons, victims, and, occasionally, leaving behind a survivor to tell his tale. His cryptic messages to the police consisted of word puzzles, astrological symbols, and drawings that seemed to invite capture but, in actuality, made him that much more difficult to track and predict. After years of cat and mouse games, the killer’s messages dried up, and the case was never solved. The mysterious and downright savage nature of these murders makes for a darkly fascinating story, and, with no less than three feature films being made about the case within the past two years (including David Fincher’s upcoming Zodiac), it doesn’t seem likely that this story will fade from the public consciousness anytime soon.
With The Zodiac, director Alexander Bulkely and writer (as well as brother of the director, despite the slightly different spelling of his last name) Kelley Bulkeley, opted to look at the case from a decidedly different point of view than your average serial killer faire. Their film focuses more on the effect that the killings have on the young Sgt. Matt Parish (Chambers), his wife, Laura (Tunney), and their introverted son, Johnny (Culkin). The film opens with The Zodiac’s first murder in Parish’s small California town. Parish is assigned as lead investigator, and the pressure of catching the killer mounts as he strikes again and again. We watch as the young cop’s once-steely resolve is replaced by nagging self-doubt and frustration as the killer toys with him and his team. Laura does her best to hold the family together, even though she is devastated by the effect the case is having on her husband, but is even more concerned with her son’s morbid fascination with the killer’s “clues”. This is all interspersed with scenes of the killer stalking and killing his quarry, but presented in such a way as to avoid the sensationalism that is usually present in the genre.
I really enjoyed The Zodiac. This is a terrifically dark and atmospheric film that takes a tired formula and flips it on its ear, offering us a very different look at how these sorts of crimes impact real people. The sense of terror and paranoia in the Parish’s small town is palpable and genuine, and this is as much a testament to the very natural feel of Kelley Bulkeley’s script as it is to Alexander Bulkley’s subdued directorial style; one that gives his cast the space to deliver fine performances across the board. I was also pleased to finally see a serial killer film that wasn’t edited to look like a grungy music video, as The Zodiac has the visual style of the more conventional drama piece that it is.
My only complaints about this film it’s that the ending felt rather abrupt to me, but that may simply be due to the fact I’d developed such an emotional investment in the characters that I wanted to know more. That’s not so much of a complaint as it is a bit of praise.
While fans of the lurid excesses of films like “Bundy”, “Gacy”, and their entire ilk may be disappointed by The Zodiac’s comparably tame style, I was pleasantly surprised by the departure from the usual formula, and think that those looking for a film that shows the heinous nature of these sorts of crimes from a different perspective will be equally surprised.