The Watcher (2000)

D: Joe Charbanic
S: James Spader, Keanu Reeves

Flashy serial killer thriller unremarkable apart from the performance of its leading man (James Spader) and the appearance of Keanu Reeves (billed 'and') as a psychopath. Burned-out former FBI agent Spader is haunted by memories of his failed pursuit of a vicious strangler in LA years ago. When the killer resurfaces in Chicago, where Spader now lives, he begins to realise that he and his nemesis inspire one another and are essential to each other's survival. He reluctantly goes in pursuit of the maniac, who taunts him by sending him photographs of his next victim and giving our hero one day to find them before he strikes.

The prospect of yet another entry in this genre is never particularly inviting. Films like The Bone Collector have already failed to produce interesting variants on the formula despite the best of intentions, while scores of low-budget, low-rent exploitation pics simply go with the flow. Meanwhile Silence of the Lambs has already produced its own problematic sequel Hannibal, in which the conventions virtually self destruct under the weight of the author's self awareness. The Watcher adds little to the palette other than to make explicit the psychosexual connection between pursuer and pursued. Reeves seems to embark on his latest killing spree in Spader's new turf simply because he misses the fact that the latter dropped out of the game. Like a jilted lover he seeks acknowledgement from his ex-pursuer, who, in turn, has trouble finding direction in his life without someone to pursue. The addition of Maria Tomei as a psychotherapist who helps the characters to spell this out for the audience is merely further testament to the dumbed-down tone, and having her fall into jeopardy at the climax is not so much a dramatic inevitability as just a way of making use of the actress for a little longer seeing as they have already paid her to be there.

The story might have worked despite its ludicrous simplemindedness and excessive familiarity, but director Joe Charbanic tries to enliven things with noise and jumpy editing. Though he shows admirable restraint in terms of the representation of violence, he chooses to frame a movie which purports to be suspenseful and psychological with busy action scenes. It opens and closes with hyperkenetic scenes crosscutting between Reeves dancing to loud music as the police close in on him. There are a couple of chase and stalk scenes and the tempo is kept very much on the up all the way. The climax itself turns out to be a shoot-out despite all the psychotherapy, and it seems to come much too quickly to make a lot of sense if we are to take the characters seriously at all.

The movie is at its best simply when observing. Though Reeves is not bad as the maniac on the loose, he is given only a few scenes to explore the nuances of the character. Spader gets rather a better deal, and comes across very well under the circumstances. Though the flashback which reveals why he is the way he is is rather dull, the actor does a superb job of representing emotional disquiet though his physical deportment and facial expressions. He is entirely believable in a film which stretches credibility, and almost makes it worth watching to see how things pan out for him. Unfortunately, of course, the script isn't really all that interested in exploring character, so what depth there is comes from canny performance. He makes good use of scenes which show his daily life: struggling to motivate himself, forced to inject himself with various drugs to stay sane enough to make his therapy, he stares at the world through haggard eyes which have been trained to see more than he wants to. It's not quite compensation enough for the rest of it, but there is a potentially interesting dynamic between the two leads which comes across in precious few moments near the overblown ending.

The Watcher is not particularly scary either. It may or may not matter, but it has been sold with the promise of terrors it never delivers. It is neither gripping nor involving, and though it is good that the stalking scenes are relatively restrained, lacking real bite on a deeper level there is not much else to take home. Casual viewers may find it an undemanding renter on a slow night, Reeves aficionados will probably enjoy it for the cross-casting aspect, more discerning viewers should probably turn their gaze elsewhere.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.