Nightwatch – 1997

Director Ole Bornedal
Screenplay Bornedal, Steven Soderbergh
Starring Ewan McGregor, Patricia Arquette, Josh Brolin, Lauren Graham, Nick Nolte, Brad Dourif, John C. Reilly, Lonny Chapman

Nightwatch is a movie that I remember wanting to watch when it’s trailers shown in theaters in 1996. It was delayed almost 2 years and then disappeared quickly after its U.S. release in 1998. Present day, my eldest is a big fan of McGregor and it shows up online.

I can’t say it is worth the wait.

It’s not that the movie is bad. The style and the set up of the Medical Examiner’s building is sufficiently creepy. There are some lights that barely work and others that work too well. Ultimately it feels somewhere between Seven and Night At The Museum.

Protagonist Martin Bells (McGregor) is wide eyed and open to the new job he got while working his way through law school. As a night watchman for a hospital morgue, he can spend the night studying, he thinks. After his training with the current, retiring night watchman (Chapman), he is effectively convinced he’ll want the sound of a radio to keep his mind busy.

The story starts with the creepy murder of a prostitute who knows her killer. While recreating the effect of playing dead, she is made actually dead. One look at the hands putting in the tape should give it away, but if you want to play along, it’s a mystery who kills her.

During the first act, we’re introduced to a lot of seemingly random things. Why do we need to know where the staff files are for this hospital? Why is Martin handed a bat? Nothing happened to the guy he is replacing in all the years he worked there. Do we have to know about that red light, even though it never goes off? And as an aside, why are those trees wrapped up at the entrance?

Martin has an artist girlfriend who has the kind of annoying haircut that an artist – or maybe Patricia Arquette – might have in the mid 90’s might have. His friend James (Brolin) is “on the edge” of something and is trying to push the envelope of risk between the two friends. His girlfriend (Graham) approves of almost nothing.

That Martin goes along with his friend’s increasingly erratic behavior feels more the function of plot mechanics. Even if Brolin does a good job selling it, no pre-law student would ever think of throwing it away on a friend’s whim. It’s hard to picture McGregor as a serious student at all in this film. He just looks like someone who’s more accustomed to getting high.

He does pull off scared new guy in the dark of night, however. The scenes with Martin roaming the halls at night all have a logic tied to them until Nolte’s police Inspector Thomas Cray comes in to accompany the delivery of another body. The conversation they have is creepy as hell. They add to the creepiness with a duty doctor played by Brad Dourif.

The table is set. pretty maids all in a row and at least four solid suspects lined up. Unless you’re not half asleep.

When evaluating this film, one has to throw out the plot and about half of the dialogue. My guess is it’s the director’s half, because some of the performances are good. Brolin is on key throughout. If McGregor is not at times, it is the script letting him down. Why not just make him a young guy going to community college? Nolte is good at first but the script does him no favors in act three.

As for the women, there are two types. Most of the women are hapless victims. This includes Arquette, who finally finds some gumption when it’s too late. Graham is severe and cold. Everything is gross to her.

In the view of this script, women lack dimension and therefore feel like bodies waiting for the medical examiner’s table. This viewpoint of women has a history in slasher films, it’s just unusual that one puts actresses the caliber of Arquette (who already had True Romance, Ed Wood and Flirting With Disaster in her history) and Graham (her first film) in those boxes. The guess is that they were just working with what they were given at the time.

The film is at its most effective with McGregor walking around the dark halls, trying to figure out what it was he just heard. The rest of the film is a chore of eliminating poorly drawn suspects from those that are almost believable.

The only other film I have seen of Bernedal’s is The Possession, which is a wholesale improvement. He is able to concentrate on atmosphere and leave the script to someone else. One can see the connections between here and there. I would prefer to be there.

(**1/2 out of *****)

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