Nightwatch is an adaptation of a Danish film, Nattevagten, that managed to hang onto its original director, Ole Bornedal. With a screenplay by Bornedal and Steven Soderbergh, it keeps a European-feeling sensibility towards sex and death. It stars Ewan McGregor as Martin Bells, a weak-willed law student who gets a job as a nightwatchman in a hospital. Checking in at the morgue every hour would be chilling enough even if it didn’t hold the victims of the local serial killer, or without the rumours that a former nightwatchmen was a necrophiliac. That’s not all that’s troubling Martin. His best friend James (Josh Brolin) is a thrillseeker who’s getting ever more reckless and cruel. Inspector Thomas Cray (Nick Nolte), a weary cop, is a little too interested in Martin, while the Duty Doctor (Brad Dourif) takes an instant dislike to him. And Martin’s girlfriend Katherine (Patricia Arquette) doesn’t seem to trust him anymore.
Nightwatch’s mystery may be a little predictable if you’re trying to stay a few steps ahead. However, the story involves so many pieces regarding which character knows what and how they’ll react to what they know that it’s still suspenseful. It doesn’t even matter that an explicit sex scene that put Martin’s semen in an incriminating place was cut from the movie to get it a lower rating. There’s enough going on that the story still fits together, wihout seeming too neat.
The movie lays on a disturbing atmosphere from a start. Martin’s trepidation towards the hospital will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in a place a fraction as creepy, and the camera shows his fear through its positioning and movements. The story escalates to an unexpectedly violent climax that, effectively, relies upon surprising but appropriate character development.
Nightwatch has an interesting collection of actors. McGregor brings a familiar youthful vulnerability to Martin (though his accent is rather shonky), and has strong chemistry with Arquette, who makes Katherine a believable person. Nolte is stonily grave as Cray, and Brolin makes James thoroughly unlikeable. Alix Koromzay gives a tragic turn as unlucky hooker Joyce. And Dourif tries his damnedest to steal every scene he’s in (of which there aren’t nearly enough), even when he’s not in focus.
Nightwatch is the kind of edgy thriller that seems to get more critical praise when they’re made in a language other than English. As it stands, though, it’s a strongly put together movie that’s hard to shake off. Maybe the original’s better, but that doesn’t mean this one’s not worth a look.