Arts Listings

Arts: Moving Pictures: ‘The Zodiac’ is a Dismal, Shallow Failure, By: Justin DeFreitas

Friday March 17, 2006

Alexander Bulkley’s The Zodiac is opening this week in limited release, and for good reason: it’s terrible. The distributors are probably just cutting their losses, sneaking the film in and out of theaters quickly and quietly, conceding the story and its audience to the upcoming big-budget version starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, due for release this September.  

Bulkley’s version changes the names of all the central figures and many of the actual locations. Whether this was a financial decision or a creative one is unclear. It couldn’t possibly be out of respect for the people whose lives were torn apart by the notorious murder spree that tormented the Bay Area in the ‘60s and ‘70s; if the filmmakers really cared about them they wouldn’t have transformed their tragedy into such a shallow, trite film.  

The movie opens today (Friday) at 10 theaters nationwide, including several in the greater Bay Area. You’d expect it to open in San Francisco, and it will, at the Presidio Theater; but you might not expect a film in limited release to show at the Vallejo 14. It makes sense in a rather perverse way, as Zodiac’s first two attacks, on couples parked in lonely lovers’ lanes, were in Vallejo. Hell, as long as you’re co-opting a city’s tragedy, why not take their money, too? 

The central problem with this film is fundamental: It doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a horror film? Is it a police procedural? Is it a family melodrama? It seems to be striving for all three, yet fails on all counts.  

As a horror film, The Zodiac offers little that is actually frightening. The crimes themselves are frightening enough and for the most part the film depicts them accurately. But Bulkley relies on a number of less-than-effective horror-film gimmicks in an attempt to keep viewers on the edge of their seats: the handheld camera, point-of-view shots, and muffled, menacing sound effects. There are at least a few scenes which fall so far short as horror that they inspired laughter at a recent preview. 

As a police procedural, Bulkley again takes the standard elements of the genre and botches them completely. We see very little actual detective work and get very little insight into the case, its clues and their meaning. Much ado is made of the ciphers the killer sent to the press, and in reality the solutions to those ciphers provided valuable insights into their creator. But as depicted here they are nothing more than taunting threats. 

While the supporting cast of cops and detectives are portrayed alternately as naysaying cowards or as dolts who can’t see the forest for the trees, Justin Chambers’ lead detective character is another kind of stereotype: He’s driven, obsessed, and eventually—wouldn’t you know it—he crosses the line. In a scene lifted directly from a good serial killer movie—The Silence of the Lambs—Chambers and his cohorts descend on a suspect’s house while the film cuts back and forth between the impending raid and shots of the actual killer at home. This is supposed to be suspenseful, but of course we’ve seen this trick before and we know that Chambers has the wrong man. The botched raid leads to an almost unbelievably bad scene in which the police chief, played by Philip Baker Hall, reprimands Chambers and actually says the following line: 

“Listen son, I want to get this guy as bad as you do, but you’ve got to play by the rules!” 

That’s gritty stuff.  

As the story of a family torn apart by a horrific murder spree, the film likewise fails again. As is so often the case with movies these days, the actress is given little to do but cry, scream and reproach the leading man. Robin Tunney complains that her detective husband is not home often enough, he works too late and he’s neglecting his son. And of course there’s the obligatory scene in which the late-working, single-minded husband misses somebody’s birthday party—in this case his own. 

After a lot of meandering nonsense, the film ends abruptly. It’s impossible to fathom just what the ending was intended to do. It really seems as though the filmmakers simply ran out of time. Or film. Or, more likely, ideas. It really doesn’t feel like a finished film at all; it’s more like a rough edit of a film where the director still hasn’t worked out his themes or his narrative thread. Like the fictional cops who piece together the messages behind the killer’s ciphers, director Bulkley knows the details, but fails to find the larger picture.  

The unintentionally hilarious coda features a police sketch of the killer with his disembodied voice reading lines from the real-life Zodiac’s final letter to the police: “I would like to see a movie about me,” he says. “Who will play me? I am now in control of all things.” 

And in effect, he is, for this movie is exactly the movie the killer would have wanted: A simple, shallow tale that buys into the self-created mystique of an egotistic psychopath and fails to glean any insight whatsoever into the pathetic, coward behind the murderous mask. ›