Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Jonathan Wright
Writer: Jennifer Archer, Michael Horrigan, Jonathan Wright
Producer: Jeff Sackman, Michael Baker
Stars: Shane West, Leslie Bibb, Matt Craven, Kenneth Welsh, Nicholas Campbell, Stephen McHattie
A trailer park couple is targeted by a madman after they uncover a collection of film reels belonging to The Zodiac Killer.
Mick’s landscaping business and his wife Zoe’s occasional hairdressing gig are far from making meager ends meet. Mick has a plan for escaping their trailer park trappings though. Acting on an impulse only slightly less foolhardy than sinking cash they don’t have into lotto tickets, Mick takes three months rent and throws in with his pawnbroker pal Harvey to purchase a presumably abandoned storage locker.
If she wasn’t so miffed at the silly spend of money, Zoe would be louder with her “I told you so” laugh when the men end up with $400 worth of junk and a few rusty old film tins. Except inside those tins are home movie reels that appear to show the infamous Zodiac Killer committing his notorious crimes.
Zoe isn’t anxious to descend into a true crime rabbit hole that could lead to a serial murderer. But the lure of a six-figure reward for outing Zodiac’s true identity is too enticing to resist. So Mick, Zoe, and Harvey begin connecting the clues, only for the line to boomerang back at them when they discover Zodiac might still be alive, and they might be his next targets.
An ordinary couple caught in the crossfire of a decades-long cold case through unexpected circumstances is almost Hitchcockian. Having costars Shane West and Leslie Bibb, predominantly Bibb, put down-to-earth charm into down-on-their-luck folks then opens the right door for drawing up drama a viewer can become invested in.
Bibb and West have a nice push-pull to their banter that bounces between frustration and affection in equal amounts. There’s a fresh feeling to their relationship, like they are an authentic couple, not make-believe people existing solely to set up a story. Matt Craven, an often undervalued actor, puts the same stab of personality into pawnbroker Harvey.
This trio of talent is truly trying to make living, breathing characters out of their performances. They’re successful too. When you step back momentarily to mentally hear how milquetoast many of their lines are, you can better appreciate how they collectively shape material to read as real interactions, even when the script’s top task for them is to deliver exposition.
Thanks to the actors injecting intrigue, “Awakening the Zodiac” keeps its serial killer thriller hook sharp for a fair stretch of time. The mystery of where their investigation might go and who The Zodiac Killer could be has some pull when it first leaves the station, although it is definitely of the tamely dry variety and not so much sensationally juicy.
As the train rolls forward, a hurdle for the film is it only has enough gas for TV movie-sized scope. For one thing, it’s impossible to not pinpoint who the killer is based on the fact that only six actors are top-billed in the opening credits. Three of them can be completely ruled out as suspects from the first moment you meet them. Two more are introduced early as such obvious red herrings that they are quickly crossed off, too. Pay no attention to the person you’re still waiting on to make an appearance and maybe the blindfold can remain in place a moment longer.
Despite fine cinematography and a crisp enough look, the greater issue unraveling “Awakening the Zodiac” is a derivative back half that doesn’t hold up when the story is all said and done. I can hop over the improbable idea that “the deadliest serial killer in U.S. history,” a debatable distinction considering Zodiac has only five confirmed kills, remained unidentified by local, federal, and armchair investigators for nearly 50 years. Yet his undoing comes from missing two weeks of payments on a storage locker, which exposes key evidence he implausibly couldn’t keep somewhere more secure.
Harder disbelief to suspend involves a long last act sequence of predictable pacing and conspicuous plot beats. These moments range from Mick exhaling, “Zoe, pick up!” through gritted teeth toward an unanswered phone to a Bond villain confession filling in all remaining blanks. “Awakening the Zodiac” also adds unnecessary epilogue minutes with a stinger that makes zero sense considering how the movie concludes.
“Awakening the Zodiac” has a worthwhile premise. The movie is made more compelling by a cast doing an honest day’s work when few would have noticed had they just phoned it in. But without any real surprises in store, the final phases of the middling mystery don’t have enough oomph to tie the movie together.
Review Score: 60