||Court TV comes to the multiplex, figuratively speaking, in this drab little independent movie recounting the efforts of a small-town cop in Northern California to track down the 1960s serial killer who called himself The Zodiac, murdered seemingly at random using different M.O.s each time, and sent complexly encoded messages to the media. The picture tries to mimic the docudramas about such monsters that have been a staple of telefilms and mini-series for years. But its technical limitations undercut its aspirations; the raggedness of the production--both narrative and visual--ultimately causes “The Zodiac” to flicker and fail. This is a wan, pedestrian treatment of a notorious unsolved crime.
The picture basically follows two connected threads. One involves the obsessive search for the elusive killer by Sergeant Matt Parish (Justin Chambers), who’s assigned the case after the first incident--the shooting of a teen couple as they snuggle on lovers’ lane--by his crusty chief (Philip Baker Hall). The other links his investigation to the effect it has on Parish’s family, poisoning his relationship with wife Laura (Robin Tunney) and son Johnny (Rory Culkin), who shows an unhealthy interest in the investigation, even sneaking into his father’s office to scrutinize the evidence. The domestic plot is apparently supposed to add resonance to the procedural one, but it doesn’t because both are plagued by the dull performance of Chambers, which is most notable for the fact that although Parish is an inveterate smoker, the actor playing him doesn’t seem to be so. He never appears comfortable holding a cigarette or danging one from his lips. Perhaps that’s why he’s usually shown stubbing them out; he does that just fine.
The rest of the performances vary from the nondescript (Tunney) to the intriguingly subdued (Culkin) to the outrageously over-the-top (Hall, who bellows as though he were playing the aggrieved superior in one of those dreadful cop television series from the seventies). The sense of TV familiarity conveyed by the film is accentuated by the presence of Rex Linn as one of Parish’s colleagues on the force; he also plays Detective Tripp regularly on “C.S.I. Miami.” Most everyone else in the cast verges on the amateurish.
As to the technical side, “The Zodiac” looks like a poverty-row production, most notably in the outdoor scenes. The killings should have a measure of suspense and horror about them, but the lack of finesse makes the sequences depicting them almost humorous. The worst is certainly the one in which a couple is stalked, tied up and done away with by the masked attacker as they lounge at a lakeshore. Quite simply, it looks as though Ed Wood had shot it.
Cold cases are fashionable nowadays, both on television and in real life, and the Zodiac is as fascinatingly enigmatic a figure as the BTK killer was until his recent apprehension. Frankly, though unquestionably a monster he deserved a better cinematic treatment than this. As the picture notes, in one of his messages he expressed the hope that a good movie would be made about him someday. If he’s still out there alive, he’ll have to continue hoping.