Thanks to a weak performance from lead Ewan McGregor and an obviously altered ending, Nightwatch straddles being a reasonably perverse suspense thriller and a scalding commentary on middle-class white male masculinity. McGregor is a third-year law school student who takes a job at the morgue to help pay for he and girlfriend Patricia Arquette’s giant apartment. She’s from a wealthy family, but McGregor wants to pay his own way. The film takes place in L.A. but never emphasizes it; the action is either the apartment, the morgue, or one of the various locations McGregor ends up with best buddy Josh Brolin. Those locations usually involve drinking and Brolin feeling bad because he’s not toxically macho enough. Being shitty to girlfriend Lauren Graham is getting less and less rewarding to Brolin, so he needs to take it up a notch.
We get this character set up during the opening credits; the film opens with a girl being murdered, then there’s opening credits with the four friends—McGregor, Arquette, Brolin, Graham—having a party (complete with McGregor wearing a native war bonnet, which simultaneously ages terribly but also tells you just what kind of dipshit McGregor will turn out to be). Intercut with the party are clips of cop Nick Nolte on the news giving an interview about a serial killer; the opening scene showed one of the murders.
Nolte’s going to be very important to Nightwatch—the eventual star and absolutely fantastic—but he’s not going to show up until the second act. The first act is about McGregor getting settled at the morgue, and then he and Brolin’s middle-class, white-collar white boy attempts to butch up. Or Brolin’s attempts and McGregor fawning over him because McGregor’s in deep need of a male authority figure. It actually figures into the plot and puts McGregor and Arquette in danger, so it turns out the first act buildup pays off. Even with the reshot ending, which ends things a little too abruptly and artlessly (I mean, Nightwatch has a killer Taxi Driver homage, it ought to have a good ending), everything in the film eventually pays off so well it smoothes over the bumps.
The second act will have Brolin escalating and becoming more and more dangerous to McGregor’s well-being—bringing sex worker Alix Koromzay into their lives. Koromzay does pretty well with a bad part; one of the bumps the film has to smooth out is when Brolin humiliates her for his own pleasure while McGregor sits by dumbfounded. Because Nightwatch is all about guys being shitty, actually. They’re either abusive like Brolin, impotent like McGregor, resigned like Lonny Chapman (the former nightwatchman), doped up like doctor Brad Dourif (it’s a small part, but he’s outstanding), or content with the failure like Nolte. It’s a profoundly misanthropic film and is the better for it. McGregor being a limp noodle makes his unsure performance hit better. In the first half the problem’s McGregor’s American accent; in the second half, everyone is more interesting than him—including Brolin, who gets astoundingly far on just an “I’m an asshole” bit. Especially once Arquette gets something to do.
For the first half of the movie, Arquette’s barely in the film. She snuggles McGregor every once in a while and sends him off to work, but she’s not active. But once she gets active, once McGregor and Brolin’s shenanigans start getting more serious, it’s kind of her movie. Outside being Nolte’s movie, because Nolte runs off with it. Director Bornedal holds off on letting Nolte loose because there’s no way to bring the film back once he does. Nolte runs it. It’s a mesmerizing performance.
The excellent performances—Nolte, Dourif, Chapman—and the eventually really good performances—Arquette and Brolin—make up for McGregor. Plus, the character’s a twerp, so there’s not much required of the performance; a better performance from McGregor, one capable of holding its ground with Nolte, would entirely change the film. Nightwatch gets away with the juxtapose of thriller and masculinity musing because of McGregor. With a good performance in the part, it wouldn’t.
Technically, Nightwatch is stellar. Bornedal’s direction, Sally Menke’s editing, and Richard Hoover’s production design are the big winners. Dan Lausten’s photography and Joachim Holbek’s music are both good and sometimes essential, but they’re not actively excelling the other cylinders.
The script’s also got some really intense moments—Bornedal adapted his Danish version, with Steven Soderbergh cowriting—particularly for Nolte.
Nightwatch is good.