Alexander Bulkley’s The Zodiac is one of those films that has the unfortunate problem of competing against the similarly titled, Zodiac. The latter film, directed by David Fincher, doesn’t even have a release date yet and already it is giving Bulkley’s film a hard time. I say this because until I was asked to review it, the only Zodiac film I knew about was the one Mr. Fincher is working on.
With there being another Truman Capote movie scheduled for release in October of this year (titled Infamous), something tells that in The Zodiac’s case, the movie that got to theaters first isn’t going to have much of an effect on the one that gets there second. As for the fate of Infamous, the people behind that film must be in the dumper, especially since Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the writer in Capote recently received the Best Actor Oscar. Also, I don’t think reliving that film is the kind of deja vu moviegoers want but we will have to see.
The Zodiac is a solidly put together tale that examines a string of killings that happened in California in the late 1960s. It doesn’t really focus on police methods or even the killer’s methods per se, rather this movie examines the effect of the case on Sgt. Matt Parish (Justin Chambers) and his wife and child. The bulk of the movie sees Parish tracking down leads and generally being frustrated by the elusive nature of the killer’s methods. There is a small portion of the film devoted to Dale Coverling (William Mapother) who covered the murders for the newspaper and TV. Overall, this is a very quiet movie with no performance overshadowing the other. It is strictly by the book and it’s use of restraint was much appreciated. While I am a huge fan of David Fincher, my fear is he is going to beat us over the head and yet not get any better results than what Bulkley has created here.
If nothing else, Bulkley very much captured the feeling of terror that a serial killer can have on a small town. In 1985, I was eleven years old when the Nightstalker (aka Richard Ramirez) was terrorizing the Southland. Thankfully, Ramirez wasn’t as smart and as skilled as the Zodiac Killer. Still, I remember the feeling of nervousness in the air. As a young kid I don’t think I had ever seen my parents scared before. The Zodiac does a very good job of capturing this aspect of the situation through the eyes of Matt Parish’s son, Johnny (Rory Culkin). Also, even at a young age, one can’t help but want to get involved in what’s going on around them. Even though what you might do can have no real impact on the case, you do what you can so you don’t feel helpless. If nothing else The Zodiac explores the idea of carrying on a normal lifestyle, amidst these various kinds of feelings.
Also, this film is genuinely scary. It thankfully doesn’t get mired or depend on music video techniques to put this across. It allows the terror to slowly gloss over the screen so that we realize just how awful the situations in the movie are. In fact, being able to do this without employing a lot of blood or needless artifice, is really a feather in Bulkley’s cap and I sincerely hope he continues to make more of these kinds of films.
The only person in this movie that I had a problem with was the Matt Parish character. I just didn’t buy or believe Justin Chambers. This isn’t to say that he isn’t a good actor, I just think he may have been miscast here. Maybe I have watched Heat too many times, I just wanted more from Chambers. I wanted to see him working the leads more. I wanted to feel that he had some expertise that was at least getting him closer to the Zodiac Killer. I am sure that the decision to play down the part was most likely a joint agreement between him and Bulkley. I just wish I could have been engaged a little more, only because I think that a movie like this which is well made, doesn’t stand out enough to stand up to the freight train that will surely be David Fincher’s film.
In closing, I was very impressed with the spareness of The Zodiac. I think it has a tension and documentary quality to it that works very well over the course of the film. Also, it really captured the vibe that is created when a regular community is suddenly forced to deal with the most irregular of people.