The Zodiac

While Bulkley and his team do an admirable job of recreating the look and feel of the late 1960s, when the infamous notorious serial killer first struck in the small town of Vallejo, the story spends far too much of its abbreviated running time dealing not with the titular (and still unknown) character or the police investigation into those crimes, but how the first series of murders affected the home life and working conditions of the fictionalized lead investigator. Hopefully, it is not sadistic to say that, when one goes to a movie titled “The Zodiac” and is promised a story based on the true events that surround the Zodiac Killer case, one expects to see a movie about the Zodiac Killer. Which is not to say the toll of being a police investigator on one’s personal and professional lives isn’t important, but should not be the main focus of a movie that continually references… nay, continually uses the still-fascinating case as the reason to see the film. It’s a classic case of bait and switch, a marketing trick that rarely works, and one that is certain to disappoint many of the brave few who give this movie a fair shake.

The quiet Bay Area town of Vallejo is rocked with the post-Christmas murders of two teenagers at a secluded “lover’s lane,” and it is up to Matt Parish (an overly broody Justin Chambers) to follow up the few clues to solve the crime as swiftly as possible, a task made much tougher by the sensationalized stories by local reporter Dale Coverling (William Mapother, exuding the same creepiness that has made him a fan favorite on “Lost”), which ratchet up the fear in the small town. Under mounting pressure from his police chief (Philip Baker Hall, who is starting to become a caricature of the qualities that once made him so great) and from his terrified wife (Robin Tunney, wasted in a thankless, one-note spouse role) to solve the case, Parish starts to crack under the stress. (If you can guess what this cop does to try and relieve his tension, it’s because you’ve seen it done with a thousand other movie officers.) Things only get worse when, six months after the first series of murders, there is another similar execution-style shooting of a young couple in their car during a Fourth of July celebration. And if that isn’t enough for Parish, the killer soon contacts several local newspapers, threatening even more murders, and including a strange cipher which he claims will reveal all to the person who can break his code.

As anyone remotely familiar with the Zodiac case, the person or persons responsible for the killings was never caught, so the scenes where Parish believes he has figured out the clues and the identity of the suspect are built with a false sense of urgency. But the problem is not that Parish is a bad person or a bad cop, just that the Zodiac was so meticulous in the implementation of his crimes that perhaps only Harry Callahan could dispatch of him. It is quite possible there is no true cinematic way to deal with someone as complex, mysterious and unknown as the Zodiac, but for certain the way not to go is to turn him into a minor character in a family drama. Bulkley and his brother/co-writer Kelly Bulkley, by focusing on the early Zodiac slayings, have painted themselves into a corner thematically, with their major saving grace being they don’t try to humanize the killer by giving him a name of a recognizable visage. The Zodiac remains the enigma he has been for almost forty years, which forces the story to rest on the shoulders of Parish. Perhaps a better actor working with a better director could have done more with the role, but Mr. Chambers does not have the effective range to make Parish anything more than a series of stock character quirks, and Mr. Bulkley lacks the ability to force his actor to go the dark places the screenplay seems to want Parish to go. Ms. Tunney, Mr. Hall and young Rory Culkin (playing the Parish’s son), all fine actors, appear to be doing little than showing up to cash their checks (one must wonder if they all took the film to keep their SAG medical benefits current). Only Mr. Mapother tries to give anything more than a surface deep performance.

What Bulkley does get right is the period setting of the film. Whatever the budget was on the film, much of it must have been spent on the wardrobe, props and vehicles to get as much of an authentic late-1960s feel as possible. He also creates moments of genuine terror with the Zodiac murders, which are gruesome without being overly disgusting or vicious. It’s a fine line most modern filmmakers looking to make a name for themselves will willingly cross without thinking twice, and Bulkley (who has since the making of the film gone on to produce the hit cable show “Robot Chicken”) stands out by being relatively conservative during these sequences.

Bulkley shows flashes of virtuosity in “The Zodiac,” and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with for his next feature, but for now, we’ll just have to look at this film as a stepping stone in what could be a promising career.

Rating: C-