I've always believed that Keanu Reeves would make a really good bad guy, ever since I saw him in action in The Gift. I was hoping that The Watcher would provide the answer. Netflix to the rescue!
The plot of The Watcher revolves around Joel Campbell (James Spader), a former FBI agent who has moved from L.A. to Chicago to escape his demons. And his demons are many, including an affair with a married woman, the death of said married woman, and the choice Joel had to make between catching a serial killer (David Allen Giffin played by Mr. Reeves) or letting the woman he loves burn to death. Unfortunately, Joel was too late to save her.
Joel moves to escape his past, but his past moves with him. David decides to relocate his serial killing activities to Chicago and continue their game of cat-and-mouse. He's gotten so used to killing that Joel is now a part of the thrill of the hunt. So David invents a little game: he mails a picture of his next victim to Joel, who has until 9 p.m. that day to find her before it's too late.
In the middle of all this is Dr. Polly Beilman (the lovely Marisa Tomei), Joel's psychiatrist. She tries to help Joel deal with his issues: he never really sleeps and has perpetual migraines. Can you guess why she's in this film kids? I knew you could!
There are two powerful flaws that make the film distracting instead of creepy.
PROBLEM #1: The film alternates between several "point of view" speeds. One of them is the normal film of day-to-day life. The second is Stalker Cam, from the perspective of David who watches his victims. Just to mix things up, occasionally the screens flashes bright white and we hear the sound of a camera flash. 'Cause David's watching. Get it? The third and worst film speed is the Memory Cam. We see bits and pieces of Joel's past life and the death of his lover in weird, Six Million Dollar Man slow motion blur. It's annoying the first time and becomes extremely tedious as the film revisits the same scene over and over and over. Worse, this effect is used whenever action takes place on screen. It's almost as if the director didn't know what to do during action scenes and resorted to blurring things a lot to cover it all up.
PROBLEM #2: At bizarre, inappropriate times, we get rock music interludes. The music varies so widely in scope that it never establishes a mood. American Psycho used music to excellent effect (covering up the screams of the victims as well as establishing the decade of the movie). In The Watcher, it's like someone flipped to MTV during the boring parts.
The main thrust of the film is the horrible anonymity that we all suffer in cities. Even though Joel knows who's going to die, even though the police put posters of the victim everywhere, even though the TV news broadcasts who the victim is…nobody notices these poor, lonely girls. It's a compelling message that's utterly lost in this film.
The actors work with what they've got. Spader comes off as patently unlikable. Tomei looks bored. Everyone else is there to act as typical foils. Reeves' dialogue makes him sound and act like an idiot.
And that's the problem. Serial killers are human wrecks, built from abuse and neglect. We never learn more about David and why he does what he does. To make him truly frightening, we need to get inside his head (stalker cams don't count). But half the time The Watcher is about Joel, who comes off as kind of a jerk. Heck, David's kills aren't even scary. The trailer showed David's shadow as he strangled a woman with piano wire…but get this, it was SPED UP.
In other words, the guys making the trailer decided the murder scenes in The Watcher were too boring, so they sped it up for the trailer. That one scene was what made me want to see the movie. But in the actual film, that scene is filmed in slow motion flash. Forget Joel's migraines, The Watcher tries to give YOU a migraine.
This is Joe Charbanic's first film as a director and presumably his last, since IMDB doesn't list anything else since 2000 when The Watcher was made. It shows.