RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 22: Joe Charbanic’s “The Watcher” (2000)


 The Players…

James Spader, Keanu Reeves, Marisa Tomei, Ernie Hudson and Chris Ellis.

The Story…

Unhinged, insomniac former FBI profiler Joel Campbell can’t shake the feeling that he’s being watched.

After failing to capture a serial killer on his home turf in LA, he ends up in Chicago, disgraced and with a headful of chemicals barely keeping crippling migraines and PTSD at bay. His old case has gone cold, but some nut job is still out there somewhere preying on unsuspecting women.

He knows this because of a few incriminating photos sent to his flat via FedEx for his eyes only. All anonymous women, slain in an identical fashion. Joel recognizes the handiwork; the killer is back in his life again, baiting him. Taunting him. The game isn’t over yet, since all the vics are local. It would appear that Joel’s not the only one to drag unfinished business to Chicago.

Looks like the case has heated up again.

The Rant…

This is gonna be quick. Relatively speaking.

I wasn’t sure as to what angle I could take for handling The Watcher. One was I could consider the serial killer murder mystery; what makes it work and what doesn’t. The other I could ruminate over what makes a bad murder mystery bad and the opposite so.

After some hand-wringing, I’m going to try to join the two together. But again, don’t worry. This is gonna be quick.

A year or so back, I covered the Hughes Bros’ From Hell at a friend’s behest (you’re welcome, Rivers). It was the big screen adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name, and it—both the book and the film—delivered a tasty, lush murder mystery surrounding the weird case of Jack The Ripper. The first “celebrity” serial killer, and analyzing the mythos behind him. Save Heather Graham’s cheesy performance, the movie had all the hallmarks of your classic whodunnit. It was a satisfying, albeit strange mystery movie.

From Hell could be considered a modern day primer for the genre, a good starting point. Sure, all the tropes and trappings were there, but there are only so many ways you can send up a murder mystery. The story progression is always the same: innocent victims, dedicated investigator, examine evidence/search for clues, hunt, chase, capture, lather, rinse, repeat. That’s any ep of CSI right there.

The rest is all style. Ultimately, that’s what’s gonna keep you glued. The original Law And Order didn’t have 20 seasons fer nuffin. It was a pretty stylish show, so much so that audiences forgot about its grittiness and absence of glamour after a while. It became part of the tapestry, a surefire formula in the best sense. With the grim nature of the cases, and continuous rotation of characters, you had to rely on some flair to keep folks coming back every week (even if it meant the cases getting increasingly more lurid).

This conjecture could be extended to serial killer movies/TV. The story is a warhorse, so only with a little spark can elevate the lame episode of The Profiler into the quirky, cultiness of Dexter (I know the finale bit the big one, but it took several seasons to get there. And y’all kept tuning in each week, so who’s the stooge? And he might be coming back, BTW). When creating a decent serial killer show or film, you gotta give a little spin. I’ve heard having some really f*cked up, memorable characters mucking about the crime scene often does the trick.

Consider those movies now, and of course I’m thinking about The Silence Of The Lambs and need not go into further detail. From Hell had quite a few weirdoes also, including the suspects. The list of successful killer movies—or at least moderately successful, if only notable—has a relatively short list, though. The Usual Suspects, Psycho, Se7en, M, Halloween. They all have a little twist, a little flair, a strange-ass cast that make the audience go, “Huh? Wait a minute” (especially that Michael Myers dude. What’s up with him?). I feel it’s the cast that makes the murder movie enjoyable or at least palatable. Unique, if not gonzo characters can elevate a tired storytelling device into good—if not high—entertainment vaulting over the common coffee and donut trappings.

So back to TV land, the primary gateway into the kooky world of killers and their hunters. While Law And Order’s homicide procedural as drama might have set the mainstream gold standard, it also galvanized every homicide investigation cliche within and without the cordon, and probably an extension into movies (remember 2001’s Along Came A Spider or even Primal Fear?). Such cliches yielded us The Black Dahlia, Hannibal (the movie, and maybe the TV show), to a degree the Saw franchise and every movie Eli Roth ever wrought. Those films not only are terribly cliched but also stock and desperate imitators of other, better films and television. It’s all about shock, awe and grue, peppered with stupid characters and sh*tty dialogue (and I mean that literally about Roth’s characters. Dumber than a sack of hammers dipped in Krazy Glue. What a fine mess, Ollie).

Most of all, they have cardboard and imitative characters. Cliches.

Getting back to From Hell and its brethren, an unsettling weirdness in their casts keeps an audience captivated. We’re all already familiar with the Law And Order and/or Hannibal Lecter clones. We can smell a schtick a mile away, even if you’ve never even seen a Hitchcock flick. We’re well acquainted with the innocent vics etc setup from above. Minus “flair,” their characters are ciphers, and the story swiftly gets flat. It’s not just we know somebody (or bodies) got murdered and the case must be cracked. We gotta to have a fresh horse to gallop out onto the range.

Someone should’ve clubbed Charbanic over his melon with this concept…

Retired FBI agent Joel Campbell (Spader) can’t sleep. His fevered mind won’t let him.

Campbell hung up his badge after failing to capture a serial killer back in his hometown of LA. The killer’s last victim was none other than Joel’s girlfriend, whose killer at the end of pursuit just…walked away, mocking him. It was too late to nab the prolific killer, one David Allen Griffen (Reeves), and ultimately too late for Campbell to regain a sense of normalcy. He relocated to Chicago, to get a full time zone away from his shattered life, as well as Griffen, whose case swiftly went cold.

In fact, the killer evaporated off the grid.

Then Campbell starts getting mail.

Between lackluster therapy and an addiction to a pharmacy’s worth of pills, Campbell does his best to get a grip on reality. He lost his girl, his job and his home. And all of this he blames on the elusive Griffen, who as far as he knows is either still out there strangling women or has turned into a ghost.

Then mail arrives. FedEx’d photos of dead girls. All strangled, all local.

A lifetime ago, Campbell failed to catch a killer who took his life away in Southern California. Now the same killer has moved to the Midwest.

The past followed Campbell. Literally, and in all the guises.

Okay, now a bit on the chin about what makes a good serial killer/murder mystery not work.

First, watch one too many eps of Law And Order. Second, be a neophyte film director with a CV that includes creating videos for Creed. Creed of all bands! Third, be totally ignorant of my tenets above. Sure, my words ain’t gospel, but I have on pseudo-good authority that what I wrote before was fairly accurate (if you can’t trust your barkeep, who can you trust? Your minister? Get behind me, Satan).

Citing the Law And Order formula again, at its inception the series slowly redefined and came to refine the gritty, urban cop show. And over 20 seasons, the show codified the homicide investigation cliche. Dogged detectives, investigations with twists and turns, the psychology of tracking down the killer and all of the fallout therein. The show’s long shadow eventually touched—some would say tainted—every show of its ilk since. This could also be said of seminal serial killer movies like LambsSe7en, etc. These films and the show created a well to draw from. In the case of the Watcher’s production, the well was drained.

Director Charbanic watched Briscoe and Logan battle wits a shade too many times. His directorial debut is rife with FBI manhunter cliches. Soaked in them is more apt. We ran the whole gamut with Watcher. Tortured, determined FBI investigator with a checkered past. Smooth, giddy, nutball killer with their quirks. Doubtful local law enforcement at first uncooperative until realizing their need for the aforementioned damaged agent’s “special skills.” Multiple damsels in distress. And all shot with jagged, “edgy” camera work. There’s even substance abuse, before God, as if all the other sh*t wasn’t churning up enough muddy waters. Watching all this was an exercise in self-flagellation, and Christ my head was hurting after 90 minutes of it.

Actually, “hurting” isn’t the best metaphor. You know how damp sandpaper feels when you rub your thumb across it? Try it, I’ll wait…Get it? That’s how my mind felt after watching this claptrap. Irritated. Chaffed. Extremely worn.

I point out irritated. The Watcher had a germ of a good idea going on, only to be bogged down—collapsed—with a billion L&O cliches. In all honesty, the movie played like an overly long ep of the series. Well, Watcher played more like a warmed-over installment of Law And Order: Criminal Intent, one starring Jeff Goldblum (the show was running on fumes by that time anyway).

But there was a good idea there, lost in the tidal surge of cliches, overwrought acting and note-by-note manhunting by the unconventional, screwed up FBI profiler. The concept of codependency between the hunter and the hunted—one has no purpose without the other—isn’t a common story device. Sure, it’s been done before (e.g. Angel Heart kinda), but infrequently enough to create a palette for a creative director and scenarist to play “What If?”

Charbanic and Co failed miserably here. Excluding the trite delivery, Watcher felt like that they only read the instructions and forgot to play the f*cking game. Everything went tits-up here. The Watcher committed to most serious crime when making a film. No, not crappy pacing (that actually worked here). The Watcher was boring. An exercise in tedium. And the movie had so much wasted potential.

Let’s start with the casting. Like I said above, get a wonky cast and let them wander, not confine them, to make a serial killer tale interesting. This cast, oddly enough, was great and totally chained to the director’s myopic vision as how such characters should behave.

And boy, was the casting nutty. We had James Spader as the strung-out, haunted FBI agent. I like Spader. I enjoyed his roles in his 80s heyday. Sure, he played mostly douchebags, and possessed the same halted delivery as here. But he had an edge to his usually wooden performance. He’s the thinking man’s Billy Zabka.

Not here. There’s no edge. Any reptilian acting is muted like a molasses enema, trapped in Charbanic’s, well, trappings. You can almost see Spader struggle to pull off the stereotype of f*cked up lawman tempered with his infamous smarminess, and forced to fall flat on his face (in several scenes literally). Come to think of it, Spader’s Campbell spends more time trying to hide under his coat than generating sympathy from the audience. One would expect a tormented FBI cop working towards redemption would gradually come out of his shell. This sort of happens, but in a very sluggish way. Spader’s Campbell looked so haggard, but not like being taunted by personal demons or the killer. He, like me, was bored.

Spader was just one example of The Watcher‘s underused cast. We also have Reeves’ Griffen to consider. Okay, here it is flat out: within ten minutes we know that Keanu is not a convincing serial killer. I guess that’s no surprise. The man’s made a career of playing the innocent, not the aggressor. Even as Neo in The Matrix series, his characters are often placed in passive roles, finding themselves in bewildering circumstances (e.g. the Bill And Ted movies, SpeedJohnny Mnemonic, Something’s Gotta Give, etc). Sure, a handful of roles he plays an action hero, but often reluctantly. Reeves’ acting style is never in your face. One may be led to suspect him being aggressive isn’t his style.

After watching Reeves’ Griffen slither and carouse (closest verb I could find here that applies), this deal is definitely not his style. His stilted delivery as vicious serial killer out to taunt his nemesis just doesn’t wash. Again, the idea of his character keeping up the game just to have a purpose in life, as well as serving as an unwanted yin to Spader’s yang had some potential. In The Watcher, this novel concept is ruined by the wooden dialogue and even more foresty acting. If there is only one aspect of Reeves’ hollow performance is that he looked like he was having fun playing against type. Whoa.

Funny thing is—and perhaps this might be a subtext within a good murder mystery/serial killer film—Reeves might have been better utilized if he remained in the shadows. You know, kind of like in Jaws, keeping the shark off camera for two-thirds of the movie until it was “ready” to be seen (and boy, was Roy Scheider’s reaction shot was great. Even more so that it was honest; it was the first scene “Bruce” made its presence known). Generates some good tension there, let’s the audiences imagination run wild for a bit. A lot of good serial killer flicks keeps the killer waiting in the wings. I mean, how many prominent scenes was Buffalo Bill in with  Lambs? Three, four? The scenes of the abduction, the well, the dance and the final confrontation. Only Lecter got more camera time.

Reeves’ Griffen might’ve been better as the voice at the end of Campbell’s phone. Or just a silent package of photos of his dirty work. Or even only headshots on FBI dossiers. Nope. Griffen’s all over this so-called mystery, in glaring light and dancing with his vics, put down by big-ticket actor Reeves time chewing scenery with ground down teeth. At least I found Keanu never breaking a sweat interesting, oozing his green charisma before strangling the objects of Griffen’s affection. Best, if not only good thing about his performance.

Simply put, the acting is not convincing. There’s nothing worse than an interesting cast wasted on a lame movie. And the rest of that cast is indeed interesting. Watcher sports an Oscar winner (Tomei), a reliable, friendly character actor (Hudson) and a hammy, relative unknown (Ellis, who indeeds hams it up in a very fun way, what with the Southern accent rooted in the Windy City). These folks have absolutely no business being a movie together. With Watcher, they still didn’t, but it would’ve been a sh*t-ton better in the hands of a director whose resume didn’t highlight wasting time directing 90s bands on their way to the bargain bin.

All this half-baked acting contributes to no sense of urgency here. We’re dealing with a vengeful serial killer, right? Then why the hell is the dramatic personae practically sleepwalking through the story, playing color by numbers? One could fault Charbonic’s neophyte standing as a straight-to-video auteur (apart from the cast, The Watcher has its own bargain bin looming behind production) on his first outing away from the MTV soundstage. Maybe there was a bad case of the Lenny Briscoes driving this movie’s motivation. Maybe it was Keanu being terribly miscast, even though he made the best of his circumstances? Doubts even here.

A thing about how high-profile Reeves landing in this pile of cow flop. Coming off his success with the first Matrix movie, you’d think Keanu would have had the pick of the litter with his next project. A serial killer mystery sounded cool, and Reeves was approached with the script. He turned it down; the story failed to catch his interest (who says the guy’s not bright?) and walked away. Yet here he was, giving his best, lukewarm Albert DeSalvo.

You might’ve heard about this. The party line went that a so-called friend of Reeves forged the actor’s signature to sign on for Charbanic’s exercise in apathy. Instead of getting into some messy, expensive legal harangue, Reeves sighed, shrugged his shoulders and—splat—hello, David Allen Griffen. And some really lame dancing.

Little doubt that Reeves’ star power permitted The Watcher to take the top spot at the box office its opening weekend. Littler doubt that the movie’s craptastic, well, everything caused its early demise therein. According to Box Office Mojo‘s numbers, The Watcher toppled precipitously a 36% plunge by its second week in theaters, and so forth and so on. The film barely made it above budget in returns. Hell, at least Reeves knew what he was getting into and tried to make the best of it (or deliberately tanked it out of spite).

The same can not be said of Charbanic and his crackerjack crew of hacks. They probably were so ecstatic to make it to the big time with all their shiny, new toys that they let their Law & Order fan worship bulldoze away any clear sense of purpose (not to mention the inclusion of an intrusive soundtrack and some really awful CGI). I mean, why does this movie even exist? Nothing really fresh was brought to the table. What was brought had been seen a hundred times before with much better quality. If my above argument about a good serial killer flick deserves strange characters, then why pick such an eclectic cast and not unitize them? Sure, Spader and Reeves played against type. Okay. But both wooden as a pair of cutting boards. How did the crew get The Watcher so scrambled and so pat with such decent resources?

I heard this story once from hair metal band Poison’s guitarist, CC DeVille (just go with me here). He recounted when he was a kid and just learning the instrument, he’d constantly be listening to his guitar heroes—Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards to name a few—on his turntable and try to mimic what he heard. Pretty common practice for a budding axe slinger. According to the guy, he had every possibility to be a great guitar player, but what he heard and what he created was a matter of getting it all scrambled in his head (well before any cocaine habit). I think DeVille later averred that if he just practiced more on his own style rather than trying to be Hendrix, he might’ve gotten on to something better. Paraphrasing here.

Maybe Charbanic shouldn’t’ve watched Red Dragon for that 101st time. That and keep away from Creed songs.

A few licks of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” might’ve done some good. Now sweep the leg, Johnny.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? What do you think, huh? And Keanu needs to get better friends.

Stray Observations…

  • “Nothin’ like a serial killer to kick off the holiday season.” My sentiments exactly.
  • The right cross with the stereo was the only thing that grabbed my attention here. It was pretty cool, tho’.
  • “Yet you make it here every week.”
  • Wait. First in one scene the car’s window is smashed, then in the next scene its healed. Bad editor!
  • “You’re paperwork.”

Next Installment…

Just My Luck, I gotta watch another dippy Lindsay Lohan movie.

Leave a Reply