The Watcher wants so badly to be Se7en it should have been called W8tcher. It’s a knock-off of David Fincher’s brutal serial killer noir, from its fragmented, arresting credits sequence to its dank, torpid atmosphere. But where Se7en had the courage of its nihilism – whatever its other faults, the film carried its premise to its logical, horrific conclusion – The Watcher is a crowd pleaser. With its chase scenes and happy ending, it’s just a conventional slasher movie that’s larded its bloodletting with pretension.
James Spader plays Jack Campbell, an ex-cop who’s still traumatized by his cat and mouse games with David, a serial killer played by Keanu Reeves. He’s fled Los Angeles for Chicago in the wake of the unsolved case. He’s a mess, just this side of suicide by painkiller overdose. His only human contact comes in his therapy sessions with Polly (Marisa Tomei), where he unloads his guilt at failing to apprehend David. After he receives a photo of a young woman in the mail, he realizes that he’s been followed to Chicago. David lays down a challenge: each morning he’ll provide Jack with a new photo, and the police will have until 9 p.m. that night to find the girl. If they can’t, she dies. Jack pulls himself together and leads the manhunt.
David is as charismatic as he is disturbed. He charms his victims before dispatching them, disarming them into thinking he’s harmless. He then stalks them, waiting for an opportune moment to strangle them with piano wire. He doesn’t rape them, an odd detail that serves two functions. First, since the relentless, grisly brutality isn’t predicated on a threat of sexual assault, the filmmakers seem to think they’re absolved of the charge that they’re inviting the audience to enjoy the titillating spectacle of tortured women. Second, once we realize that David is more interested in Jack’s pursuit of him than he is in the killings, the film can milk our homophobia for extra thrills.
The best films about killers – Psycho, Badlands, James Benning’s sadly little-known Landscape Suicide – tend to be built around quiet, withdrawn performances. Norman Bates mesmerizes us with his stillness, forcing us to imagine the depths of the madness behind his bland front. Reeves takes the opposite tack, cackling and mugging. It’s a ludicrous performance, exacerbated by the flat timbre of his voice, which at its most expressive suggests a bored employee paging a customer in a mall. We first see him in the midst of his murder ritual, doing a little dance in slow motion, each writhing movement punctuated with deafening whooshes and crashes. Reeves looks lost, playacting at being scary.
Spader would have been a more convincing choice. He’s a cold actor with a clammy, reptilian presence, adept at projecting intelligence. He’s played creeps before, and his wary, malignant stare could have provided the mystery Reeves fails utterly to generate. As it is, he strives to make something of a one-note role. It’s a good effort, though he’s undone by his co-stars (Tomei barely even registers) and the formulaic script.
First-time director Joe Charbanic has had a distinguished career in music video, and that training is apparent in The Watcher. The soundtrack is cacophonous, with tracks by Rob Zombie used to jumpstart the movie whenever the exposition stalls the pace. David’s point of view is rendered with slow motion video. Jack’s flashbacks are a stuttering green murk. Scene by scene, it’s a great looking movie, but the parts never mesh into a coherent visual style. (It suggests Se7en, if the credits sequence had been cut in every few minutes for variety.) More than anything else, the film feels like ninety minutes of MTV: it’s that flashy, and that empty.