Given how predictable the formula has become, somebody should be making a self-aware parody of the serial killer genre, similar to how "Scream" skewered the contrivances and conventions of the 'dead teenager' movie. The set-up is always the same-- a serial killer with an idiosyncratic method to his madness is pitted in a battle of wits against a law enforcement officer who is unsure of his or her own abilities. Obscure clues are left behind, which are slowly pieced together by the hero, who has some mystical insight into the mind of the killer, while the rest of his or her colleagues frantically race around town in a futile attempt to prevent the next scheduled murder. And though there have been some memorable entries into this well-tread genre, such as "Silence of the Lambs" and the recent "The Cell", most 'serial killer'-type films are more mundane, such as the uninspired "Copycat" and the unintelligible "Eye of the Beholder". Such is the case with "The Watcher", which despite having an intriguing thematic underpinning, is essentially more of the same.
In the case of "The Watcher", the unsure hero is former FBI agent Joel Campbell (James Spader of "2 Days in the Valley") who has moved to Chicago from his native Los Angeles in the aftermath of having let serial killer David Allen Griffin (Keanu Reeves of "The Replacements") slip through his fingers. Traumatized by his failure, Campbell now lives off disability, spending his days shuttling between his therapist (Marisa Tomei of "Welcome to Sarajevo") and a barbiturate-induced stupor.
However, Campbell is galvanized back into the saddle when his nemesis Griffin shows up in the windy city to continue their sick cat-and-mouse game. However, instead of merely stalking his young female victims before strangling them to death, Griffin adds a new twist. One day prior to each murder, Griffin mails Campbell a photo of his intended victim, giving him until the following evening to save the woman's life. Unfortunately, the catch is that Griffin chooses his victims carefully, picking nondescript women who are essentially invisible to the people around them, and Campbell finds that it is almost impossible to stop the slaughter.
The most interesting aspect of "The Watcher" is how it builds its premise on Griffin taking advantage of the isolating behaviors of urban life. Despite his training in the skills of observation as an FBI officer, Campbell has been conditioned to not register the countless faces thrust in front of him in the midst of his daily routine, which is aptly illustrated when he is unable to recognize the picture of a murder victim living next door to him. Later on, when Griffin sets his sights on a homeless woman, a public plea from the police to help identify her is ineffective, as it is a matter of habit for the general public to filter out street people and to turn a deaf ear to their requests for spare change. This theme also ties into the relationship between cop and killer, as the 'fear of invisibility' seems to be a key motivator in Griffin's pathology.
Unfortunately, the script doesn't do much else to extend this interesting theme other than as a gimmick for creating suspense. Had the observations of insular behavior in urban society been more deeply integrated into the Campbell's character and explored a little further with respect to Griffin's character development, "The Watcher" would have certainly been more than a sub-par 'serial thriller'. As a result, all that there is left for first-time director Joe Charbanic to do with the 93-minute running time is to have Griffin act implausibly kooky, use every camera trick in the book to create a jarring blend of "Seven" edginess and the multimedia mayhem of Oliver Stone ("Any Given Sunday"), and conjure up suspense by having the Chicago police run around in circles.
Another contributor to the underwhelming effect that "The Watcher" has lies in its performances. Other than Reeves, who is intriguingly yet effectively cast-against-type as the cold-hearted killer, the bulk of the performances found here are heavily sedating. Spader's subdued portrayal of Campbell is emotionally flat, despite the potential offered by his character's tragic backstory, and so it is difficult to become emotionally invested in both his character and his character's quest. Similarly, Tomei is at her most lethargic, with a performance lacking even a fraction of the energy or enthusiasm she has shown in her other roles, such as in "My Cousin Vinny" and "The Slums of Beverly Hills". Was her character supposed to be so worn-out, or was she merely there to fulfill contractual obligations?
"The Watcher", other than having the vague glow of potential in its premise, is yet another mediocre entry into the growing serial killer genre. If you've seen your fair share of such 'serial thrillers', then very little in "The Watcher" will seem fresh or innovative, and you'll probably end up feeling just as bored as James Spader and Marisa Tomei look.