Thursday, August 16, 2012


I stumbled across Nightwatch as soon as it came out on DVD, back in '97 or '98.  I had never seen a preview for it, was completely unaware of its box-office performance, and knew nothing of its plot.  I did, however, recognize Ewan McGregor from Trainspotting, and that was good enough to warrant a rental.  It was the first real “thriller” I had ever seen --- I had still not experienced a true horror movie yet, either --- and the novelty of discovering a film on my own, free of the mass media and the recommendations of others made this a personal favorite for a few years.  Now, I hadn't watched Nightwatch in years, but I never forgot the positive impression it left on me.  As the years have passed, I have occasionally wondered why nobody else seems to fondly remember this pic.  Was I just a stupid kid with terrible taste in movies when I first watched Nightwatch, or is this an under-appreciated gem?  Only one way to find out, I suppose.

Martin (Ewan McGregor) is a student in law school, who enjoys typical law school things, like going out drinking with friends and laughing loudly.  He shares a gigantic loft apartment with his busty girlfriend (Patricia Arquette) and hangs out with his asshole best friend, James (Josh Brolin), and his smart-mouthed girlfriend (Lauren Graham).   The big difference between Martin and the others is that he doesn’t have any money.  And, apparently, “no money” is a relative term, because he still goes out to bars with his friends and has that badass apartment.  To fix that problem, Martin decides to take a job as a night watchman at a morgue.  
This was after a failed attempt to open a casino
 Because he is a normal college kid, and that is what normal college kids do, right?  Anyways, the job pays well and will give him ample time to study.  The morgue is, predictably, a creepy place, and everyone who works there is bizarre and horrible.  No surprises there.  It is weird, though, that the watchmen have to go into every room in the morgue every hour and essentially get a time punch to prove they were there.  There seems to only be one entrance to the building, which means that the only time anyone could get in without being noticed is when the security guard is doing his hourly rounds; I suppose that policy is in place only to mess with the minds of the employees. 
The labels on the bottles read "amorphous blob in formaldehyde"
A body is brought into the morgue one night, an apparent victim of a serial killer.  Martin meets Detective Cole (Nick Nolte), who lets him in on some of the grisly details; the victims have been hookers, and the killer is sadistic and has some knowledge of surgery.  Around this time, James starts acting bizarre; his actions appear to be those of a bored rich kid looking for adrenaline kicks.  He gets a particular rush from bar fights and hiring prostitutes to degrade themselves.  Sounds suspicious, doesn’t it?  This naturally leads the police to assume that James Martin is the serial killer.  That would suck on its own, but it is pretty obvious that the killer also has his/her eye on Martin, too...
McGregor's homage to "Scream"

The acting in Nightwatch definitely has its highs and its lows. Unfortunately, the highs fall in the realm of acceptability, while the lows are just incomprehensibly odd.  I liked Ewan McGregor’s natural charm and thought he was pretty likable, although a little dumb.  His character’s logic isn’t very impressive, but McGregor did a good job playing up some of the more childish aspects of his character.  Patricia Arquette was her typical self; she’s fairly blank for most of the film and when she has to act distressed, she sounds a little moronic. 
This would have been a great opportunity for her to say "These aren't my clothes"
Still, she has a very background role, so that never becomes problematic.  Lauren Graham had an even smaller part, which left even less of an impression.   That’s too bad, because I usually like her.  I liked Brad Dourif as the least sympathetic doctor ever, even if the character was hilariously unrealistic. Oh, and John C. Reilly had a very small role as Nolte’s partner/underling. Remember when he was an outstanding dramatic actor?  Man, those were the days.  Nick Nolte, though, was just bizarre.  
This film was made right around when he stopped playing romantic leads and began to embrace his creepy aging face.  And he definitely brought the creepy with this role.  It’s one thing to play a bad cop, or even a disturbed cop, but his Detective Cole immediately strikes you as the type of person who makes neckties out of human flesh.  Who would trust this guy?  That would be a more pressing question if it wasn’t for Josh Brolin’s character.  Here is a character that is all things to all people, depending on the needs of the script.  Do you need someone to be brash and fun?  How about unsettling and abrasive?  Maybe a murderer?  Or a voice of reason?  No problem --- JB will fill that role!  Honestly, I don’t think it is possible for Brolin to look remotely competent playing such a poorly written character, but I think he did as good a job as he could with what he was working with.
"Your motivation here is to want to punch Ewan in his damn face...for some reason"

I was shocked to find that Steven Soderbergh was responsible for co-writing this film.  I don’t know if there is some sordid behind-the-scenes story about the making of this film, but this is truly awful writing.  The characters are immune to logic, the police do not follow even the most basic of investigative steps, and the serial killer menacingly sings “This Old Man.”

Well, I suppose it's a bit creepier if you interpret "played knick-knack" as "made molesting motions with his hands."  Actually, the story isn't really Soderbergh's fault; Nightwatch is an American remake of the Danish film Nattevagten, so it's pretty obvious that Soderbergh was hired primarily to translate the script into Americanese.  The original story (and the Danish script) was written by Ole Bornedal, who also directed both the Danish film and the American remake.  As frustrated as I was watching the characters act so damnably odd, I have to give Bornedal some credit --- he does a nice job building the suspense in this film.  He doesn't do it artfully, so it isn't subliminal like clever camera shots can be.  Instead, he slowly builds the tension and makes even the smallest and stupidest plot point seem threatening.  
"Actually, I am interested in changing my long distance.  Very interested..."
Thankfully, he focused almost entirely on Ewan McGregor's character --- the only one in the movie that is even remotely believable --- so you might not notice just how ridiculously over the top the entire supporting cast is.  I'll give Bornedal an "A" for effort and execution, but a "D" for his actual script and characters.

I don't almost feels like I am being a little too harsh on Nightwatch, like I'm overcompensating for having such a high opinion of it as a youngster.  But then I glance at my notes and feel a whole lot better.  Sure, I can look the other way on some of the dumb stuff in this movie --- like the fact that the police apparently do not check alibis because it builds suspense, or the acreage of the allegedly college apartments --- but there are some things I just can't ignore.  For example, I can sympathize with Martin when he is audibly confused when a prostitute starts to give him a surprise handjob in a fancy restaurant --- that would be a little weird and socially awkward --- but I don't think yelping repeatedly like she was wearing a joy buzzer was a natural reaction. 
Although it does explain his attraction to that alarm...
I also doubt that a tough, muscle-bound guy at a bar who apparently likes to fight would be wearing a Jennifer Beal's torn sweatshirt from Flashdance.  And then there’s the final confrontation between Martin and the killer.  It works perfectly well as a sadistic killer preying on an innocent, but when you remember that the killer is trying to frame Martin, the weapons being employed make a whole lot less sense; you can make it look like Martin is a killer who committed suicide if you use, say, a gun, but not if you're attacking him with a bone saw, moron.

Man, what a letdown.  I remembered this movie being so cool.  Now, I see it as just an exercise in how to do the best you can with a crappy script.  The suspense is genuinely well done.  The script is genuinely wretched.  If it wasn't for McGregor's energy, this movie would be nigh-unwatchable.  And it's really too bad, because this movie comes very close to being genuinely creepy.  Sadly the lack of believable characters makes this a promising movie that just isn't very good.


  1. So is Nolte the killer? Save me the suspense!!!

  2. Actually, the big twist ending has Eddie Murphy as the killer. Nolte's been covering up for him, since he was supposed to be responsible for Murphy while he's temporarily out of jail. Also, the working title of this film was "Yet Another 48 Hours."

  3. Did they foreshadow it by playing a slow lounge version of Roxanne during the creepy parts?

    1. I thought you said you hadn't seen this movie!