It is the stuff of gazillion urban legends, two kids making out in a car on a deserted country road only to be attacked by a psychopath. Only this is true. The psychopath was THE ZODIAC, and he started his killing spree in 1968 and, depending on whom you talk to, continued on for another decade in Northern California. The eponymous film examines not so much the murders, as the effect that they had on a population that was terrorized and the police force tasked with keeping them not only safe, but calm.
It centers on Sgt Matt Parrish (Justin Chambers), the detective who catches the case after the first murder, a pair of teenagers slaughtered on the outskirts of the small town of Vallejo by a hail of gunfire in their car. It’s the Christmas season and Parrish’s son, Johnny (Rory Culkin), curious about the first murder in the town that anyone can remember, rides over on his bike, only to be shooed away by his father but not before he catches a glimpse of a body beneath a sheet. It’s also where Parrish begins to be be dogged by a local reporter (William Mapother), who, as the case progresses, and the body count grows, sees this as an opportunity to ride the story to fame and fortune.
The names of the people and the places, as the movie tells us at the outset, have been changed, but the story of the murders themselves is absolutely true and rendered with an immediacy that is startling for the almost banal way in which they are depicted. There is no buffer of auteur-like stylization. It plays as close to real life as it’s possible for a feature film to capture, and is all the more disconcerting for it. Like Hitchcock in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, and in a fine tribute to him, director and co-writer Alexander Bulkley juxtaposes the benign ordinariness of Vallejo with the savagery of the crime, the wholesome landscape standing in sharp contrast to what happens when no one is looking.
Absolutely true are the notes that The Zodiac sent to police, read by Marty Lindsay, who plays the killer, but whose face we never see. It’s a flat, almost monotone, reflecting the same calm, deliberate way we see him commit the killings. Unhurried, absolutely in control, the complete lack of emotion exhibited as he methodically reloads a weapon, fires it repeatedly, or stops to take a souvenir completely terrifying for the way he makes it seem so normal.
Set squarely in the context of its times by co-writers Bulkley and Kelley Bulkeley (brothers who spell their last names differently), the action is interspersed with montages of then-current events, including the Vietnam War, unrest in the streets, and other iconic images of the times that were a social and cultural turning point. as well as scenes of 1932’s MOST DANGEROUS GAME, a melodrama about a hunt for humans with which one of the suspects in the case was obsessed. It is the loss of innocence, though, of a sense of security, on which the film centers and in that it succeeds by, like the rest of the film, going the subtle route.
The seeds of that last theme are sown with Johnny at the first crime scene, and continue as he overhears the increasingly heated discussions of the crimes between his parents, takes the artist’s rendition of the killer around town on his own search, or collects evidence in a box under his bed that correlates when the murders occur to astrological events. His parents undergo their own changes, his mother (Robin Tunney, in fine understated performance) growing more fearful and Parrish becoming so obsessed with maintaining a façade of calm that he forbids her to lock the door to their house. It becomes a question of which will break first, the case, or the cop trying to solve it.
Mapother never plays his character’s sleaze factor, which makes him mildly creepy, rather than merely reprehensible. Culkin is properly solemn as Johnny becomes more wrapped up in his own search for the truth, and Chambers plays a perfectly normal guy coping, badly, with a situation over which he has no control without ever losing that basic core of decency.
THE ZODIAC has a style that is terse, but never perfunctory, evoking with a spare economy the illusion of safety that is so fragile, and events and emotions for which people can never be prepared.