Awakening The Zodiac

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Awakening The Zodiac
"Writers Jennifer Archer and Mike Horrigan correctly surmise that the key to making a Zodiac story compelling is not horror but mystery."

Ever since he first captured public attention in San Francisco at the end of the 1960s, the Zodiac killer has held a special place in history. Probably the most famous serial killer ever to get away with it, he has obsessed professional and amateur detectives alike, which guarantees that any film concerning him will find an audience. For that film's producers, however, this guarantee of interest comes at a cost. The film will have a lot to live up to.

Is the Zodiac still alive? Statistically, taking into account the time of the killings confirmed or strongly suspected to be his, he's likely to be at least 76 years of age, but many of the main suspects in the case have now passed away. At any rate, the window for making films in which he can be seen as a credible threat is rapidly closing. It is, however, still only a decade since David Fincher's Zodiac came out, and that presents a problem - because Fincher's film was shot with such impeccable attention to recreating details (he even had a tree replanted), there's limited room for creativity in scenes reflecting on the past. It's a bold move, then, to use the same opening sequence - a recreation of the shootings of Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday - which director Jonathan Wright approaches by shooting much of it from behind, giving us something more closely approaching the killer's perspective. This is reflected elsewhere in the film: rather than looking at events simply as a curious bystander or potential victim, we are invited to remember that the Zodiac has fans.

Copy picture

Men like this keep souvenirs. There has been speculation, over the years, about whether or not the Zodiac might have filmed some of his crimes. The pretext of this film is that he did, and that those films turn up in a locker sale. Down on their luck couple Mick (Shane West) and Zoe (Leslie Bibb), and their friend Harvey (Matt Craven) recognise that their find could be worth a small fortune but that in order to make money they'll need further evidence to prove they're not fakes, so they start trying to trace the person the locker belonged to. Then they start to see the same black car a little too often, and receive a phone call where the only sound is someone's breathing.

Writers Jennifer Archer and Mike Horrigan correctly surmise that the key to making a Zodiac story compelling is not horror but mystery, so for the first two thirds of the film we are invited to become increasingly involved in the protagonists' searches and speculations whilst the sense of danger quietly grows in the background. There's no great trick to pulling this off; all it really needs is the right pacing. A couple of scenes allude closely to Fincher's work, which some will take as affectionate homage (it strikes a nice note in a wider story that's all about looking for patterns) but others will consider theft. Bibb is strong throughout and her character has the right balance of reluctance and compulsive daring to complement the myth. West is convincing enough but his character never comes across as being very bright, which is a little frustrating in context. His is a brash, brittle form of masculinity coming up against something much more sophisticated - and, that, perhaps, gives the Zodiac more creedit than he really deserves.

The challenging part of this film was always going to be the ending. There's no room to repeat what Fincher did. The audience wants a pay-off, but at the same time, to pick one Zodiac theory or another - or even invent a new one - would risk breaking the spell. Although some avenues are inevitably closed off by the simple fact of the killer being alive, the writers pull off a neat trick to balance these objectives. There's also some good vocal work from the actor concerned (no spoilers), closely approximating the well known, recorded voice of the original.

Despite this, however, there is a loss of tension. It's difficult to make any embodied killer as terrifying as the legend. A cliché 'twist' leading up to the final sequence weakens the film and it is let down by its multiple endings, as well as by hitherto unseen Wolverine-like abilities in Mick which stretch credulity a little too far. It's a shame because, overall, the film exceeds expectations. It's attractively shot with a colour palette that recalls the Seventies films that provided a backdrop to the Zodiac's activities, and it knows when to downplay the simple scares and give us creepiness instead. If you go into it hoping for a Zodiac classic, you're ultimately going to be disappointed, but if you go into it prepared for a polished little thriller with dark overtones and just a little too much ambition, you'll find it an enjoyable ride.

Reviewed on: 08 Jun 2017
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Awakening The Zodiac packshot
A couple who are struggling to make ends meet come across film reels that may have belonged to the legendary serial killer, and set out to track down their source.

Director: Jonathan Wright

Writer: Jennifer Archer, Mike Horrigan

Starring: Shane West, Leslie Bibb, Matt Craven

Year: 2017

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Canada

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