The Zodiac Killer to me has always been one of those fascinating mysteries. The whole case seems like a Hollywood movie in and of itself. It’s no wonder then that it’s also been one that has permeated into film and pop culture, with films like Dirty Harry, The Exorcist III, and culminating in David Fincher’s 2007 Zodiac. Director Jonathan Wright has also jumped into the Zodiac pool with Awakening The Zodiac, which had its limited release in the US on June 9th, and its VOD release June 13th. Rather than completely retreading past films, Wright does attempt to mix things up with adding a bit of humor to our main characters. Surprisingly, it works. But then there’s the rest of the film…
Mick (Shane West) and Zoe Branson (Leslie Bibb) are having trouble making ends meet. Between Mick’s landscaping business and Zoe’s job as a hairdresser, the couple needs to get out of their trailer park. Things aren’t helped when Mick impulsively spends three months’ worth of rent with his buddy Harvey (Matt Craven) on a seemingly abandoned storage locker. In amongst the junk, they find a few old film tins. Upon viewing the films, they discover that they’re in possession of home movies of the infamous Zodiac Killer committing his murders. While the lure of a six-figure reward for discovering The Zodiac’s true identity is too good to pass up for the trio, it appears that The Zodiac himself is still alive. And he wants his movies back.
With Wright’s focus on injecting humor into his film, our trio of protagonists delve into witty banter as a way of developing their characters. And surprisingly, it works. Bibb and West do a nice job of being the married couple working out their frustrations through snide remarks one moment and affection the next. It feels genuine, and not some contrived attempt by actors who don’t have the chemistry for the role. Craven’s Harvey is still an integral part of the group, as he adds that slightly off-kilter personality, but also has a wealth of knowledge. The roles could’ve been reduced to the typical clichéd exaggerations we sometimes see in films like these, so it’s a welcome relief.
Behind the camera, Wright displays some fine skill in presentation (with help from Director of Photography Boris Mojsovski and Production Designer Lisa Soper). Shot in and around Ottawa, Ontario, Wright manages to get things to look like rural Virginia. Script-wise, the film latches onto the whodunit idea with regards to the identity of the Zodiac, and does offer a bit of tension for the first two-thirds of the film. The last third of the film, unfortunately, dips into derivativeness of predictable plot moments and pacing.
The biggest mark against Awakening The Zodiac is the script’s lack of mileage and surprises. For starters, while the idea of finding out the identity of The Zodiac is an intriguing one (right up there with the identity of Jack The Ripper), if you’re going to do your credits sequence, don’t make it easy for the audience to figure things out. Of the six people listed in the credits, three of them are our protagonists. It’s not going to be hard to figure out who The Zodiac is from the remaining three. It doesn’t help when two of them are obvious red herrings that are quickly eliminated. Furthermore, part of the intrigue and appeal of The Zodiac mystery is the way he taunted police and law enforcement with clues and cryptograms. This all goes out the window when The Zodiac is undone by missing payments on a storage locker? Come on. The last bit of eye-rolling comes in the form of an “It’s not over yet!” stinger at the end, which makes about as much sense as the idea of The Zodiac being undone by a storage locker.
Awakening The Zodiac turns out to be only average and unfulfilling at the end. I do have to give credit to the cast, who go above what could’ve been a phoned-in performance, and made what could’ve been a trainwreck of a film into something tolerable. However, with the lack of real sustained suspense that could’ve been avoided with a refined script, the film is nowhere near what it could’ve been as a whodunit thriller with a bit of humor thrown in for flavor. It’s a casual watch, but don’t be surprised if you guess how things end up.