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The Watcher

Director: Joe Charbonic
Cast: Keanu Reeves, James Spader, Marisa Tomei, Ernie Hudson, Robert Cicchini, Chris Ellis

(Universal; 2000)

The Watcher and the Watched

You’d better look out your window, not too obviously, but very carefully. He may be watching you. He’s out there, always out there, waiting and watching. Particularly if you happen to be a vulnerable member of society — say a young, single woman — you are sure to be watched by some dark figure who will sneak up on you someday when you least expect it, and you will meet the end to which your whole life has been leading.


Welcome to the world of Hollywood serial killers. The Watcher, directed by Joe Charbonic, plays to every paranoid fear you might have developed from all those years of watching psycho killers enjoying their work. Griffin (Keanu Reeves) is the psycho, plotting his murders elaborately, performing ritual dances in front of his bound and duct-taped victims, then whirling to the kill in deftly choreographed moves, slitting throats with piano wire. And, like a long line of other stereotyped killers, Griffin invites others to play his game. He singles out his favorite detective, Campbell (James Spader), to whom he FedExes photos of his intended victims and gives a nightly deadline to stop the killing. Griffin is very good at what he does, and as the games progress, he seems to make all the winning moves. Night after night, in spite of frantic appeals from the Chicago police and media, and thousands of flyers with the victims’ photographs distributed all over the city, one young woman after another walks into her one-bedroom apartment, stands in front of her closet, completely helpless when the watcher emerges from the dark.


Of course, these familiar plot devices and images are mainstream media’s attempts to psychoanalyze contemporary urban culture. In these instances, the watchers/killers inevitably represent all our repressed fears, which are, apparently, just waiting to be exposed. But Charbonic’s film goes beyond this basic cliche because, while in The Watcher the killer pursues his victims as the police pursue him like always, Campbell, our protector from our worst nightmares, proves an ineffectual savior, a weak fisher-king wracked with migraines so severe he takes injections directly in the stomach, a retired cop on permanent psychological disability. So, we cannot rely on those who lead the investigations; nor can we rely on the combined efforts of law enforcement. In The Watcher the city depends on a police force paralyzed by ineptitude. Thus we have multiple high speed chase scenes, with police cars spinning out of control and Griffin nonchalantly eluding them every time. We have highly trained swat teams being dropped from helicopters and heavily coordinated search and destroy missions that never find and never destroy. I’ll leave it to you to find out who proves superior in the end, the deranged Griffin or the mentally wrecked Detective Campbell.


But don’t go to this movie expecting much suspense. It’ll terrify you if you are in the right mood for good old fashioned movie violence, but the terror seldom comes from the suspense. We know from the beginning who the killer is, and we see right through Keanu Reeves’s tiny eyes and into his character’s mind from the start. Campbell’s therapist, Polly (Marisa Tomei), interprets the essential relationships for us in case we don’t get it. Both killer and pursuer need each other; they are each other’s brother that neither had. She also serves as a necessary plot device when Griffin stalks her and she becomes the first victim we are supposed to care about.


The film’s power, if it has any at all, comes not from suspense but from the mind-numbing effects of complete helplessness, brought on by repeated frustrated attempts to get to the killer before he strikes again and from the fact that the killer is the star of the film, not the detective. Usually such roles go to secondary character actors, and I’m not at all sure that Reeves adds anything at all to the film except his beady eyes. But, maybe that’s enough. After all, those eyes are watching you right now, and who do you think is going to save you? Think again.

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31 Dec 1994
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