A BIT TOO LONG IN THE SLEUTH
AWAKENING THE ZODIAC (15)
Director: Jonathan Wright
Review: RJ Bland
True crime has always been a popular subject amongst audiences, particularly genre fans. You know what's scarier than a terrifying bad guy (or gal) that kills people in horrible ways? A terrifying bad guy (or gal) that actually DID kill people in horrible ways. And what's even scarier than that? One that has yet to be caught – that is still out there. It's one of the reasons why there has always been a morbid fascination with killers such as Jack the Ripper and the Texarkana Moonlight Killer. The crimes they commit are unsettling enough, but the idea that those crimes can be committed and that no one is brought to justice? That sits just as uneasily as the crimes themselves. Another case that has captured the public imagination is the Zodiac killer, the murderer who killed five people (although he claimed to have killed a lot more) in California during the late 60s/early 70s. Several films have been released concerning the affair, including The Zodiac Killer (1971) and more recently David Fincher's mesmerising Zodiac (2007). Veteran film-maker Jonathan Wright's Awakening the Zodiac is the latest take on the killer and his mythology, so we tuned in to see if it's a worthwhile resurrection or if the whole thing should just be left alone...
This is how I imagine the pitch for Awakening the Zodiac went down...
Jonathan Wright, holding out one hand: 'You know the film 'Sinister', whith Ethan Hawke in?'.
One of the procucers nods.
Jonathan Wright, holding out the other hand: 'And....have you heard of the TV show, 'Storage Wars'?'
Wright looks smug, bites his bottom lip and intertwines his fingers, ala David Brent.
And that isn't meant disparagingly by the way as the set-up for Awakening the Zodiac is actually pretty neat. Leslie Bibb and Shane West play a down-on-their-luck couple who are on the brink of financial ruin after the latter squanders most of their remaining savings on an abandoned storage locker, with the hope of selling it's (as yet unknown) contents on for profit. Unfortunately the contents appear to be a load of old toot, but local pawnshop owner (played by Matt Craven) takes a look through the contents and discovers something of interest – some old 8mm film cans. No, they don't contain footage of Bughuul hanging a family from a tree, what they do contain appears to be footage taken by the Zodiac Killer, fifty years previously, cataloguing his killings. Like Etahan Hawke's wickedly named Ellison Oswalt, the trio decide not to turn the tapes over to the police but to try and enearth some more evidence that will make them eligible for the lucrative $100k reward offered by the cops for information leading to the arrest of the enigmatic serial killer. However as they start to follow up leads and uncover clues, the trio soon discover that sleuthing can be a risky business...
Awakening the Zodiac is something of a frustrating move-going experience and much of that is down to the huge potential of the premise, much of which isn't realised. If handled differently, this could have been a dark, brooding, tense affair and although we get glimpses of all of those elements, they are too few and far between. Fortunately there is no huge logic gaps or even leaps of faith required for this to feel like an almost believable scenario though. We fully understand the protagonists desire to try and track down more evidence themselves rather than go to the police. The idea of a dormant serial killer emerging once again to protect his anonymity is effectively threatening too.
Tonally however, the film is a little muddled. Bibb and West play two characters clearly out of their depth and although they have good on-screen chemistry together, their bumbling shenanigans and lack of initial seriousness jars a little bit the longer it goes on. Their sleuthing, whilst offering some mild tension and a few light scares, mainly consists of snooping around a house they believe belongs (or belonged) to the Zodiac and of course, we get the classic 'researching stuff on a computer/microfiche in an empty library basement' scene. That's not to say some of these scenes don't offer any tension, they just feel like we've seen them done before – and to a better standard.
Technically, the film is solid enough. The acting performances are all perfectly fine but although the direction feels assured, you just feel that Wright doesn't eek quite enough tension and suspense from the (admittedly limited) opportunities he is given to ramp things up. It never really feels like it gets out of second gear until the last twenty minutes or so. We do get a bit more blood and drama in this last act but the reveal of the killer is a little underwhelming. It's always the danger when you unmask the villain of the movie. Much like an episode of Scooby Doo - he was a lot scarier when we didn't know who he was or what he looked like. Once the sense of mystery and intrigue is lost, Awakening the Zodiac turns into standard survival fare and with mixed results. The action and violence is a nice change of pace from the investigative/procedural second act.
However, characters (The Zodiac Killer in particular) seem to make choices and decisions that contradict their apparent intelligence/cunning. One of the criticisms of Fincher's 'Zodiac' was that it was too much of a slow burn and didn't deliver enough of a 'thrilling' finale. You almost feel as if Wright and co are doing their best to offer an alternative. The final scene of the movie also had a lot of viewers scratching their heads a little and it's not hard to see why. It almost feels as if they put it in there to add an extra level of ambiguity.
Awakening feels like a disappointment because it feels like the ingredients are all there for a really decent crime thriller/horror crossover and although the budget may have restricted those ambitions a little, there isn't quite enough here for the film to be considered a success. Fans of dark procedurals will get a kick out of some of this but for the rest of us it'll feel like a squandered opportunity.