There are so many intense themes running rampant in Joe Charbanic's debut feature, The Watcher, that it's tricky to keep up. For instance there's the ominous notion that a young lady who lives alone with her cat is pretty much doomed. Then there's the gripping premise that borrowing from nihilistic wanker David Fincher (Se7en) or industrial scamp Trent Reznor (a dead ringer for Keanu Reeves' loutish villain here) will somehow excite us in this postdistortion age. Topping it off there's the wild concept that migraines hurt a lot, which the movie seems determined to prove by bashing us in the head with everything it's got. Much like the survivors of this little Windy City rampage, once the terror ends and the credits roll, we finally get to the best part: a merciful escape.
Fortunately, enough amusing tricks fall out of this fraying bag to sustain this extremely familiar diversion from start (violence, chaos) to finish (violence, chaos, explosions). Launching with the distinct impression that Chicago policemen live to play smash-up derby with their cars, the movie opens like a humorless, nocturnal take on the finale of The Blues Brothers, with countless cops skittering willy-nilly through the funky urban jungle. Meanwhile our hero, a homicide detective named Campbell (James Spader), generously offers us a series of confusing dreams and flashbacks, which involve a lot of fire and people panicking. Laconic and perpetually courting delirium from addictions to several prescription drugs, Campbell has transplanted himself from Southern California (represented in another flashback that looks suspiciously like outtakes from a Chris Isaak video) to Chicago, where he hopes he's shaken a nasty serial killer he failed to capture back in L.A. Wrong! Much to Campbell's dismay, the rascal Griffin (Reeves) has followed him, forgetting to pack neither his blood lust nor his piano wire.
After the initial ka-pow of the framing device, we settle into a bare-bones plot, which consists mainly of Griffin cunningly stalking young, vulnerable (but otherwise autonomous) babes, affording Campbell one clue and one day before he murders them. The clue in each case is a snapshot, taken seemingly innocently by Griffin as he flirts with his quarry, then offered to the authorities to see if they can save the anonymous young lady before he methodically offs her. "When she passes out from fear or pain, he'll revive her over and over again," Campbell darkly explains (in an attempt by screenwriters David Elliot and Clay Ayers to amplify the horror), but before long Griffin's passion shifts from ugly manipulation to hasty death-dealing. Although Campbell insists on taking the case (despite a fellow officer calling him "Captain Barbiturate"), slippery Griffin keeps eluding his pursuer. It also doesn't help that Spader's character, given a clean shot, couldn't hit the Hancock Tower with a howitzer.
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Of course no thriller is complete without a sensitive love interest who plummets into the chasm of terror, so here we have a kindly counselor named Polly (Marisa Tomei) who looks after Campbell's woebegone heart (and possibly his mojo). In the sessions, which Polly tape-records and meticulously files (so that Griffin can later snoop through Campbell's psyche), the frazzled detective reckons with the killer's looming presence as well as the mysterious source of his inner torment. Polly is simply a symbol of divine benevolence (like the Portishead song "Roads," recycled here from Rachel Talalay's Tank Girl, the creators fade her out like an afterthought), but she's vital to Campbell's sanity, which also makes her vital to Griffin's dastardly -- if rather vague -- plan.
The Watcher is desperate to sound poignant notes about grief and guilt while Campbell chases Griffin, but it consistently conceals its own undercooked middle with noise and cruelty, so the movie feels creepy for the wrong reasons. True, it musters some crackling suspense with each of Griffin's targets, but when the crux of the problem is a codependent serial killer lacking both motive and characterization, the thrills come shallow and cheap. In this sense the movie feels like a bloated student project, a tone exacerbated by the grainy, strobing camera work intended to represent the killer's perspective (which would render him legally blind). Add in one hell of a lot of racket (sound mixer Jacob D. Collins seems to possess faders permanently stuck on 11) and Marco Beltrami's pulsating score (imagine "Nine Inch Shaft," and pardon the expression), and you have a narrow victory of style over substance.
On the plus side, as in Universal's similar The Bone Collector, we are treated to some peculiar and interesting performances here. At first it seems that Spader is as much a gumshoe as this critic is a dentist, but his commitment to the role grows, and the dry, somber voice and haggard expression suit him well. Similarly, veteran actor Ernie Hudson's presence lends the movie gravity, especially when one recalls how witty and dour he can be at the same time (as in The Crow, when he dismissed the death of a criminal with, "Looks like he zigged when he should have zagged"). Yet Reeves is the star of this energetic dog, and his performance is by far the most intriguing. This is due in part to his badly feathered hair and puffy features (Did he flee the nicotine gauntness of The Matrix for a donut shop, without bothering to change his trench coat?), but it's mainly the delivery. Wavering between his exaggerated husky voice and a weird, deadpan yap, he seems bent on avoiding acting at all costs, which, ironically, proves surprisingly effective, as if he's on some scary automatic pilot. (Editor Richard Nord could have enhanced this eeriness by eviscerating all the silly shots of Reeves dancing around in strobe like a bloodthirsty pagan, but perhaps his hands were tied.)
Actually it's a wonder Reeves appears in so much of The Watcher anyway, as his work was supposed to entail a few days as a favor to a hockey buddy but blossomed into the irritation of scale wages and a cumbersome shoot. Director Charbanic seems to be figuring out his movie as he goes along, reflected in a telling scene in which Griffin is photographing one of his victims. He's much too close for the little camera to focus properly, but confidently assuring his subject that everything is "perfect," he gleefully snaps away all the same.