[box cover]

The Watcher

What is it that makes serial killers constant fodder for the filmmaking gristmill? The formula for such stories seems to alter little from film to film — the only variables the setting (usually one of America's four or five biggest cities), the music (usually odd sounds or loud rock-and-roll), the chosen method of killing, and the degree of gore. When the superb Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was released in 1986, it seemed as though this definitive serial killer film would rendered future takes on the genre unnecessary (although even that film spawned a sequel). While not a bad movie, The Watcher, with its predictable storyline and cliché-laden dialogue, brings nothing new to the category. The plot involves FBI agent Campbell (James Spader), who has left his L.A.-based job as a serial-killer expert and moved to Chicago because of a personal tragedy. He lives on disability, psychotherapy, and a heavy dose of prescription drugs. Keanu Reeves plays David Allen Griffin (why are serial killers known by three names?), a psychopath with a penchant for watching, stalking, and then strangling young girls with piano wire. Griffin eluded Campbell in L.A. and has followed him to Chicago because Campbell's replacement at the FBI just wasn't any fun to torment. Seems Griffin's real focus is Campbell, whom he sees as his natural sparring partner — "a yin to his yang." Campbell has no interest in playing this cat-and-mouse game, but the killer lures him back onto the job by sending photos of his next victim, offering just 24 hours to identify and save the girl before he moves in for the kill. The Watcher does have its good points — Marisa Tomei is excellent as Campbell's psychiatrist, making the most of a small but pivotal role, and scenes with Tomei and Spader are particularly effective at exploring the mindset of a killer. As Campbell observes about Griffin, "The man's whole life is about killing. He studies it." Both Spader and Reeves give some authenticity to their characters, even though their parts are seriously underwritten (and in fact, it might have been more interesting if they had switched parts). Chris Elliot is also good as the cooperative cop (a rare thing in a movie where the FBI and local police are forced to collaborate). But first-time director Joe Charbanic quick-cuts from short intimate moments to car chases and explosions with such frenzy that it feels as though he was afraid to let the story develop on its own, and about 80% of the film is second-unit work involving helicopters, car crashes, burning gasoline, and spectacular shots of Chicago. Award-winning DP Michael Chapman does some outstanding camera work, but the lush photography of the city becomes more prominent than the story or characters, and the movie ends up coming across as one long, weird music video with a film style that serves to keep the viewer at a distance and engagement at a minimum. Universal's DVD release of The Watcher is beautifully rendered in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the very dark blacks and sepia tones in the night scenes, which dominate the film, are particularly clear and sharp. The Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation is strong as well, with the ambient sounds of the city, the police station, and ringing telephones. Extras include production notes, talent files, and theatrical trailers. Keep-case.
—Kerry Fall

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