|© 2006-2010 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
There's an intriguing premise buried in The Watcher, which focuses on a
serial killer who moves his base of operation when the primary FBI agent on his
case suffers a mental collapse and relocates from Los Angeles to Chicago, but
first time director Joe Charbanic and screenwriters Clay Ayers and David Elliot
botch their attempt at creating a truly involving thriller.
Joel Campbell (James Spader looking appropriately haggard) is the G-man
who has moved to the Midwest to be near the woman he loves -- or rather the
grave of the woman he loves. Under the opening credits for the film, scenes of
Campbell running after a dark figure and then returning to a house in flames play
out and gradually the audience learns that this is a recurring nightmare for
Campbell. A serial killer (Keanu Reeves) had targeted the married woman with
whom Joel was having an affair and his residual guilt has left the federal agent's
psyche seriously damaged. Now on disability and popping pills to help him cope,
Joel Campbell is, in short, a mess. But as his sympathetic psychologist (a
wasted Marisa Tomei) points out, he does manage to make it to his therapy
"twice a week," suggesting that perhaps he isn't as bad off as he believes.
Returning home from one of these sessions, Campbell finds a crime scene
in his apartment building. Asked if he recognizes the victim, he says no and
proceeds home. Sifting through his mail, he spots a Federal Express envelope
that contains -- a photograph of the victim. Recognizing the signature of the
serial killer known as David Allen Griffin, Campbell hightails it to FBI
headquarters and tells the chief (Ernie Hudson) what he knows. He only springs
into action when Griffin personally
calls him with the challenge of finding the next targeted victim within a
twenty-four hour period. Over the course of several days, they engage in a
cat-and-mouse duel wherein Griffin manages to stay just one step ahead.
Eventually, the pair come to a showdown from which the audience knows that
only one is going to emerge.
Originally meant as a low-budget indie, The Watcher had the potential to
be a taut, if not wholly originally drama. Reeves had signed on to play the villain
as a favor to Charbanic but then Universal agreed to finance the project and the
independent production ballooned to a studio film with Spader and Tomei added
for additional marquee value. Because this is his first feature, Charbanic
telegraphs too much; in several instances he portentously cuts to an important
piece of information as if he doesn't trust the intelligence of the viewer. (For
example, when Campbell first brings in his mail and throws on a table unopened,
the camera lingers on the Federal Express envelope.) The director also attempts
to put the action into the mind of the serial killer and telegraphs this by using
different film stock. If his handling of the material were any more heavy-handed,
the audience might be able to sue him for assault.
The actors struggle with their parts. While Spader looks to be believable as
the burnt out, retired FBI agent, there isn't much for him to flesh out. As he has
proven with strong material (like sex, lies, and videotape), he can deliver
outstanding work. Even in lesser fare, like this, he is eminently watchable. It's
not his fault there isn't a three-dimensional character for him to portray.
Tomei is essentially window dressing and seems uncomfortable in the role
of the therapist. Her character is poorly drawn and she functions as a plot device
to be the woman in jeopardy. Additionally, she is so unflatteringly dressed and
so badly lit that it verges on the criminal.
Reeves does an admirable job as the seductive killer although he can't
always make some of the trite dialogue work. This loner tends to pick out
nondescript young women and then monitors every action before moving in for
the kill -- hence the title. Reeves is not the most emotive performer but here his
blankness informs the character. He can blend in so well and be so unnoticeable
that he is able to "watch" without being caught.
(SPOILER ALERT: The motivation for his crime spree, however, may be
deemed offensive by certain groups -- although not overtly developed, there's
the hint that Griffin kills in order to act out his homoerotic feelings for Campbell.
Gay groups that protested the depiction of Buffalo Bob in The Silence of the
Lambs might have gotten their placards ready -- if anybody had bothered to see
As a psychological thriller, The Watcher is merely passable. If it weren't
for the presence of Keanu Reeves and James Spader, it would not warrant any
MPAA Rating: R for violence and language
Running time: 97 min.