The Watcher

If serial killers hadn’t already existed, Hollywood screenwriters would have had to invent them; as it is, there have probably been more serial-killer movies in the last ten years than there have been actual serial killers in the last century. The late, lamented Gene Siskel had grown bored to tears with S-K thrillers in recent years, and I wish he were still around to bash new entries like The Cell and now The Watcher — two of the worst films ever to open at #1 at the box office.

In a way, movies that announce their awfulness in the first five minutes, as The Watcher does, are preferable to films that begin well and sadly go south: At least you’ve had fair warning. The Watcher was directed by one Joe Charbanic, whose resumé includes videos for Keanu Reeves’ rock band Dogstar; Charbanic wastes no time getting nostalgic for his roots, zapping us with a nonsensical montage of Keanu (as the movie’s serial killer) cavorting around to the beat of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” (the music buys the movie unearned association with a better Keanu movie, The Matrix, which featured the same song).

Most of the movie’s remainder is little better, and I was offended to hear a snippet of Portishead — a sumptuous, moody sound that belongs miles away from The Watcher — adorning a dull scene between burned-out FBI cop James Spader and his shrink Marisa Tomei. (Marisa Tomei as a psychiatrist? Let that sink in.) Spader and Reeves have a history: Spader spent three years trying to catch Reeves, whose modus operandi is to spy on young women and then kill them. The frazzled, migraine-plagued Spader moved to Chicago; now Reeves has followed him there and begun his killings anew, because every Moriarty needs a Sherlock, right?

James Spader is more or less responsible for my losing 97 minutes of my life to this movie, since he was the main reason I bothered with it, but I can’t be too mad at him. Given a kindergarten-level script (by David Elliot and Clay Ayers), Spader does the best he can, bringing gut-level intensity and gravity to his scenes. Still, if you dump a load of manure on a butterfly, you can’t expect it to fly very well, and after a while Spader wriggles around in this muck despite his hardest efforts to maintain some personal dignity. Marisa Tomei is here only to give Reeves a star to kidnap (as opposed to the no-name actresses he slaughters, who apparently don’t mean as much). Keanu, as other reviewers have noted, is Keanu — a blank slate on which talented filmmakers can sometimes draw. No such doodling here.

Where does The Watcher cross the line? Is it in its utter serial-killer-template approach to its story? (I mean, for once let’s see a serial killer who doesn’t spout one-liners or devise elaborate schemes to trap his prey.) Is it in such ridiculous scenes as the one in which Keanu drives his car through some gas tanks and tosses a lighter, incinerating everything in the area except his gas-soaked car? Is it in the pompous style of the film (Keanu presumably has a vision problem — his point of view is always shot on digital video)? Is it in the clichéd writing of the Spader character, whose unenviable quality of living is underscored by the familiar empty fridge?

Well, it’s all of that and one thing more. Perhaps it’s that I’m getting older, or maybe I’m just tired of serial-killer movies (whose victims tend to be female exclusively), but if I never see another scene in which a woman is bound and gagged, terrified and knowing she’s going to die, while her killer struts around the room basking in his own psychotic cleverness, I won’t mind a bit. One depiction of murder in The Watcher struck me as morally repugnant — the killing of a homeless young woman, reduced to a rock-video shorthand of brutality. The losses of life are meaningless, just beats in a screenplay without rhythm. I would rather have seen a ten-second synopsis of The Watcher — “Here’s Keanu. He’s bad. Here’s Spader. He’s good. Good eventually defeats bad. Have a nice day” — than sit through it at 97-minute length.

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