Film Review: Awakening the Zodiac

A young couple comes across evidence that might finally unmask the notorious 1960s serial murderer in this disappointing thriller.
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Virginia dreamer Mick Branson (Shane West) is chasing a pot of gold he believes lies somewhere in an abandoned storage locker, though the couple of nice scores he's made don't balance out the number of times he's wound up pawing through dead people's junk. "My sister's got it better than us," his practical wife, Zoe (Leslie Bibb), points out. "And she's in jail."

Everything changes when he buys the locker of a purportedly wealthy old lady. It isn't full of cash or jewelry, but it does contain some decades-old cans of 16mm film…footage that Mick's eccentric friend Harvey (Matt Craven) is convinced was shot by the uncaught Zodiac killer, who terrorized Northern California between 1968 and the early 1970s. Mick and Harvey figure there must be some way to monetize the find…but what if Zodiac is still alive?

The Zodiac killer is a favorite of amateur criminologists, both because he was never caught and because of his showy habits, which included wearing a executioner's hood and sending taunting letters written in a highly decorative cipher to local newspapers. The murders have inspired several films, most notably David Fincher's 2007 Zodiac, based on a nonfiction account of the crimes. There may well be an effective thriller based on the notion that Zodiac's spree didn't end because he died (by far the most common reason serial killers stop), but Awakening the Zodiac is not that film, largely because the main characters are so tediously pleasant and bright-eyed.

Craven scored the best role in the mildly paranoid Harvey, and the movie picks up when he's onscreen. But overall it plays like a vintage TV mystery movie: It's hard to get across what made Zodiac so terrifying—he was definitively credited with five murders (though suspected of more) and, sadly, that tally has been brutally eclipsed by many others—without delving deeply into the apocalyptic vibe of post-Summer of Love California. Without that context, the film's present-day sleuthing is more than a little dull.

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