Screenplay : David Elliot and Clay Ayers (story by Darcy Meyers and David Elliot)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : James Spader (Jack Campbell), Keanu Reeves (Griffin), Marisa Tomei (Polly), Ernie Hudson (FBI Director), Robert Cicchini (Mitch), Chris Ellis (Hollis), Jenny McShane (Diana)
"The Watcher" is a serial killer thriller that, like "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), is ultimately about the unusual relationship between a killer and an FBI agent. "The Watcher" attempts to further complicate the scenario by making the relationship into a triangle of sorts by inserting a third character who is close to the investigator and whose life will, therefore, be threatened at some point by the killer.
In this sense, "The Watcher" is primarily a film about relationships, something that is pointed out time and time again by many overtly explanatory speeches by the killer. The problem, however, is that none of these relationships are established in any meaningful sense. In what I take to be an attempt to generate suspense and interest by leaving out large sections of the narrative and revealing them little by little in jagged flashbacks, the movie makes a crucial error: It withholds too much information for too long. By the time the pieces start coming together in the third act, there is no hope of becoming emotionally involved in the characters.
The central relationship is between Jack Campbell (James Spader), a burnt-out FBI agent, and Griffin (Keanu Reeves), a serial killer who has followed Campbell from Los Angeles to Chicago. In a series of blurry, fragmented flashbacks that are interspersed throughout the movie, we get bits and pieces of how Campbell and Griffin are linked and why Griffin followed Campbell 2,000 miles to continue his serial killing practice of methodically tracking the moves of young women before hiding in their houses and strangling them with piano wire.
When Griffin resumes his grisly practice, the Chicago police get Campbell involved in the investigation even though he is an emotional basket case who is highly dependent on a plethora of prescription drugs, including migraine painkillers that he injects directly into his stomach. When Griffin gets bored with the authorities' inability to catch him, he begins sending Campbell a picture of his next victim one day prior to killing her. In other words, he teases the police with the chance to save his next victim before he gets to her.
It is only in this middle section of the film that the story comes alive in any meaningful sense, as Campbell and the Chicago police search frantically to find the unnamed woman in the picture before she is killed. Each time they have a deadline of 24 hours, and the cruel irony is that, even with the mass communication technologies of television and radio at their disposal, it is still close to impossible to identify the doomed woman before the deadline expires.
The third member of the triangle relationship between Campbell and Griffin is Griffin's psychiatrist, Polly (Marisa Tomei). The few scenes in which Spader and Tomei interact are short and almost perfunctory; we get no sense of any emotional involvement outside that of a patient and his analyst. This essentially takes the wind out of the climax when Griffin kidnaps Polly and threatens her life; the relationship between Campbell and Polly is not strong enough to sustain any suspense outside of general jeopardy. In other words, we have no reason to assume that Campbell would be any more upset at Polly's life being threatened that any other woman in Chicago. Amazingly enough, the film generates more emotional involvement and suspense in Campbell's attempt to find and save two women he doesn't know than in his attempt to save Polly, a woman with whom he is supposed to have some kind of bond.
The unsatisfactory narrative is not aided much by the three central performers, all of whom appear to be dragging through the paces en route to better roles in better movies. Spader makes a generally bland hero, and Reeves is even blander as the serial killer. Both are saddled with awful dialogue, especially Reeves who is constantly having to explain his twisted spiritual bond to Campbell. Tomei's performance might have been better if her character had been more defined and if she had served more of a narrative function than simply becoming the damsel in distress at the end.
First-time director Joe Charbanic attempts to punch up the volume with an overload of flashy editing, distorted camera lenses, and a woefully misguided use of alternative rock songs. With the exception of the middle section of the film, the narrative is painfully inert and slow-moving, yet Charbanic still tries to treat it like a music video. Unfortunately, all the self-consciously hip style in the world isn't enough to compensate for an inert story that has no real destination.
©2000 James Kendrick