Awakening the Zodiac was directed by Jonathan Wright (Good Witch, Nostrum), written by Wright, Jennifer Archer, and Mike Horrigan, and stars Shane West (Echelon Conspiracy, Escape the Field), Leslie Bibb (Running with the Devil, Iron Man), Matt Craven (White House Down, Devil) and Kenneth Welsh (The Void, Psycho Goreman). It follows a married couple as they try to track down the Zodiac Killer after finding footage of his murders.
The Plot: Wright goes where many movies have gone before, using the prolific killer from the late 60s in an attempt to make something conclusive out of the real mystery. Of course, most who’ve tried have failed with few exceptions. The makers of Awakening the Zodiac don’t succeed in that regard but do offer good setups and engaging fiction.
Mick (West) has just bought an old storage locker in hopes of finding something useful or valuable to the dismay of his wife Zoe (Bibb). While Zoe isn’t enthusiastic about what may be inside, Mick’s friend and pawnshop owner Harvey (Craven) is after finding old film reels from 1969. On one is what was shown in the opening, a retroactively clever double homicide, and the others are more murders. Harvey suggests digging deeper into the film and finding who really owned the storage locker so they can all split the $100,000 reward.
After going to check on the woman who sold them the locker to find she wasn’t there, Mick and Zoe break in and find the address of the previous owner and break in to find out more about who the locker really belonged to. The writers have a convenience problem, with the first place they enter having everything necessary to point the finger at Ben (Welsh), the man who owns the place, while offering no other possibilities, making the mystery angle collateral damage in the process; though this isn’t the primary genre of Awakening the Zodiac, it does affect its presentation. The trio continues down their path, finding more evidence and soon, threats from the killer himself.
Archer, Wright, and Horrigan deliver a somewhat compelling story while never disrespecting the source material with exploitative actions. Originality is had with its introduction but it does devolve into a derivative conclusion.
The Characters: In a decision contrary to most low to mid-budget mystery/thrillers, the writers of Awakening the Zodiac keep the characters in the center of the movie in an effort to retain some legitimacy and earnestness.
Mick isn’t in a good place, barely keeping the couple’s trailer home afloat by doing odd jobs where he can, mowing lawns, tossing out the trash, car washing, and so forth. His solution is of high risk and high reward: bet on the contents of storage lockers. It’s not a foolproof plan by any means, but the man is getting desperate for assets while never coming across as an addict to the process. He’s just in it for the head start the reward would offer him in setting his wife up for a better life.
Zoe has become the “adult of the house” after losing her job when the salon she worked at closed and is none too happy about it. She’s like Mick in that she took a risk with him and lost, opting to sell her mother’s belongings to live with him, which didn’t have the payoff she was expecting. Her relationship with Mick isn’t dampened by this, she still sticks by him out of love, which West and Bibb illustrate very well in their performances.
Harvey is getting by selling whatever he and Mick scrounge up in his shop. After his career in the military, it’s clear that this new line of work is starting to lose its appeal, making the potential gain from finding the killer even more lucrative. Awakening the Zodiac makes a point out of the motivations for all of these characters. It’s not greed, it’s desperation. Even when they take some large leaps, the movie can make them feel organic with its setup and performances, all of which are very good, especially for a movie that could’ve stopped short of casting name actors to sell itself.
The Thrills: Wright is no David Fincher when it comes to offering engaging sequences that heighten tension, but he is able to sustain a dark atmosphere with occasionally shocking moments throughout most of Awakening the Zodiac.
Despite being a little too close to Sinister in execution, the idea of the Zodiac Killer keeping visual records of his acts isn’t too far out of the realm of possibility (the man taunted the cops numerous times), clearly entertained by his work. The super 8 footage is shocking in its own right but suggests more than it shows for the most part, which lets the audience do the imagining barring the first couple of minutes which take place in 1968. Only, that murder isn’t shown in one of the reels so it’s hard to pinpoint why it was used for the cold open.
Keeping Awakening the Zodiac’s characters paranoid is the fact that the killer could still be alive and possibly well. After being told to let their investigation go by their neighbour, Mick and Zoe are put on edge, justifiably so considering that said neighbour was in San Francisco in the 60s, and because the rest of the contents of the storage container were emptied when Mick and Zoe went back to it. Wright at times overplays this with false moments but their changing attitudes and the handful of revelations are strong enough to get by.
Unfortunately, Awakening the Zodiac dips into familiar territory towards the last act with car chases and gunfights that seem entirely out of character for the killer, given the whole movie made him out to be sure-handed and clean. Even though this ending is familiar, a lot of the preceding thriller moments are good at keeping the edge.
The Technics: Wright’s direction is easily above average, managing scenes well with the appropriate changes in tone handled well even during abrupt transitions in attitudes when the characters discover something new. There’s always an air of apprehension when Mick and Zoe are on screen, less so with Harvey, but still present.
Cinematographer Boris Mojsovski (Titans, The Day) pairs well with Wright in creating lowly lit scenes of investigation and the ominous tone that something is about to be unearthed to at least one person’s chagrin via dark interior lighting, soft outdoor lighting, and a dusting usage of smoke/fog appropriate in coastal California, where the movie is set.
This is all well and good, but the filmmakers extend Awakening the Zodiac longer than it should be, with a tighter edit, the mood could be better sustained and a couple of leaps could be ignored.
It won’t be entered into the canon of great movies about the Zodiac Killer, but Awakening the Zodiac is an engaging thriller with compelling investigation scenes paired with a strong sense of paranoia that lasts longer than most.