Give Ole Bornedal credit for having his finger firmly on the pulse of American pop culture. The Danish director could not have chosen a more opportune time to adapt his bloody 1995 thriller "Nightwatch" ("Nattevagten") for young audiences, who seem to be happiest when awash in gore, guts and other Gothic pleasures.
Having picked up on the success of such neo-Gothic pictures as "The Silence of the Lambs," "Seven" and "Kiss the Girls," Bornedal has carved out his own niche that, while visually arresting, hasn't enough style, ingenuity or irony to raise it above the pack. "Nightwatch" is passable stuff for undiscriminating fans of the ickier-the-better genre; for the rest of us, it offers nothing new. And, like its predecessors, "Nightwatch" raises troubling questions about the persistent appeal of sexually sadistic images, the fetishization of female suffering and just which taboos deserve to be flouted.
"Nightwatch" concerns one Martin Bells (Ewan McGregor), a law student who takes a job as a night watchman at a mortuary in order to earn money for school. Appropriately, Martin's first night on the job is full of creepy forebodings of things to come: The man he's replacing gives him lots of cryptic advice about which rooms to avoid and not looking at the corpses during his rounds, and he refers to the watchman of yore who was caught doing unspeakable things with the mortuary's, um, clients.
Martin laughs off the old man's warnings until he spends his first night alone in the place. Soon, he's blaring techno music out of his Walkman just to blot out the mounting sense of dread that threatens to drive him mad.
Martin's mental state isn't helped by the fact that outside, a serial killer has embarked on a crime spree that involves &L stabbing prostitutes, poking out their eyes and doing unspeakable things to their lifeless bodies. As Martin's mental state deteriorates, his girlfriend (Patricia Arquette) and the detective (Nick Nolte) begin to suspect him; their suspicions are abetted by Martin's best friend (Josh Brolin), who keeps involving Martin in his own explorations of the edges of human sexuality.
Bornedal does a nice job of setting up an eerie visual atmosphere in "Nightwatch" -- he wraps part of the mortuary in billowing black plastic sheeting, which gives the building an undulating, biomorphic feel. And he adheres to the narrative conventions of the genre with unfussy straightforwardness, with the requisite number of red herrings and tricks of the eye. And "Nightwatch" systematically escalates the bloody violence, from the vaguely erotic opening scene to gruesomely desecrated corpses to a too-close call with a band saw.
In fact, considering that the screenplay was co-written by Steven Soderbergh ("sex, lies and videotape," "Kafka"), it's surprising that "Nightwatch" is so conventional. You'd think that Soderbergh alone could come up with a few more twists on the usual horror fare, and that he might figure out a way to predicate the action on something other than the brutal -- and sexualized -- defilement of the female body.
The political and moral implications of such violent crypto-sexism are objectionable enough; as an artistic choice, it's just plain tired.
Starring Ewan McGregor, Patricia Arquette, Josh Brolin, Lauren Graham, Nick Nolte
Directed by Ole Bornedal
Released by Dimension Films
NTC Rated R (strong morbid violence, language, sexuality and some drug content)
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 4/17/98