So many intense themes run rampant in Joe Charbanic's debut feature, The Watcher, that it's tricky to keep up. For instance, a young lady who lives alone with her cat seems ominously 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 has. 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 from 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 much fire and panicky people. Laconic and perpetually courting delirium from addictions to several prescription drugs, Campbell has transplanted himself from Southern California to Chicago, where he hopes he has 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.
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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 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, which is 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 upon taking the case (despite a fellow officer calling him "Captain Barbiturate"), slippery Griffin continues to elude his pursuer. It also doesn't help that Spader's character, given a clean shot, couldn't hit the Hancock Tower with a howitzer.
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 tends to 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, 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.
On the plus side, as in Universal's similar 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. Yet Reeves is the star of this energetic dog, and his performance is by far the most intriguing. 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.