Thrillers about serial killers traditionally consist of three parts: identification of the killer, capture of the killer while one last intended victim writhes, and explanation of why the killer kills. But as ”The Cell” so recently demonstrated, little is ever gained by dwelling on the average serial killer’s motives. At least not in the movies, where psychological excavation usually yields clichés involving tortured homosexual desires, childhood abuse, or a bad church experience. Even in a story as exciting as ”The Silence of the Lambs,” the kind of diagnoses favored by screenwriters seem strained compared with the sickening violence of the crimes.
But some diagnoses are lamer than others. In The Watcher, Keanu Reeves plays David Allen Griffin, an aloof psycho (that’s giving his blankness the benefit of the doubt) who preys on young, unattached women. He likes to study his quarry’s routine (hence the existential title). Then he breaks into her home, hides until she returns after a lonely day of being single, dances with her, and garrotes her with wire. James Spader plays Joel Campbell, the FBI agent who first unsuccessfully tracked Griffin in Los Angeles, as a result of which he’s become a pill guzzling wreck so haggard he makes ”The Cell”’s Vince Vaughn look well rested. (That Reeves and Spader might have more ”logically” been cast in their opposite role is the movie’s only surprise.)
Campbell has moved to Chicago, where he is being treated by a psychotherapist played by Marisa Tomei, a graduate of Dr. Melfi’s ”Sopranos” school of analysis: lots of empathetic looks while sitting very still. And the news that Griffin has come to Chicago too, the better to taunt his pursuer — the criminal sends photos of his intended victims to the cop — only makes Spader enact migraine pain with even more vein popping effort. Griffin, it becomes clear, feels nothing for the young women he slashes and discards; the real object of his obsession — in a ”Chuck & Buck”ish sort of way — is Campbell.
At any rate, first time feature director Joe Charbanic evidently feels something special for Reeves, if only because the actor previously hired Charbanic to direct videos for Reeves’ band, Dogstar. Reeves is a stiff dancer and he delivers his lines in a full leather jacket monotone, but Charbanic approximates dynamism by making Reeves a part of the composition — smoke, shadows, light, rock & roll — while Marco Beltrami’s busy score tries in vain to suggest Hitchcockian tension. (When he’s not running after his perp, Spader is photographed so that he appears slack, undone.)
In one climactic scene, Griffin, Campbell, and Campbell’s shrink are brought together in a derelict industrial space — very ”Diva” — that Campbell has thoughtfully lit with dozens of candles. Well, multiple candles may be a universal symbol in movies (and rock videos) for romance and spirituality. But they’re useless in illuminating the deadness of ”The Watcher.”