Not to be confused with the recent Russian action hit, the 1994 Danish low-budget film Nightwatch (aka Nattevagten) was later remade by its director Ole Bornedal in English, starring Ewan McGregor and Nick Nolte; on viewing, I ask, why bother?

It starts off effectively enough. A psychotic killer is dominating the news, as law student Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) starts a job as a night-watchman at a medical facility. After hearing about a scandal surrounding a former night-watchman caught sleeping with “them”, Martin meets the detective charged with investigating the killing spree and learns of the brutal calling card the psycho leaves – scalping. It is in these scenes that Bornedal is at his best, making good use of his creepy hospital setting, with eerie tracking shots of the dank, shadowy hallways and using creepy mise-en-scene in the rooms.

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Outside of work, Martin and his best pal Jens (Kim Bodnia) begin a game of chicken, with both having to do their friend's dares, and the loser is forced to marry their girlfriend, Kalinka (Sofie Gråbøl) and Lotte (Lotte Anderson) respectively. As their dares become more risky, Jens challenges Martin to sleep with 17-year-old prostitute Joyce (Rikke Louise Andersson), a girl who could be Martin's downfall. Though these attempts at buddy comedy are amusing, wringing out a few dark laughs, they sit uncomfortably with the story of a killer on the loose.

After a tense, if tonally awkward, beginning, climaxing with a neat double bluff, Nightwatch falters rapidly as Martin is put in the position of being the wrong man accused, with his friends left to try and prove his innocence. Perhaps the reason this fails is because, as a protagonist, Martin is an unlikeable, cowardly man, nihilistic and ungrateful for his good fortune - so it is hard for viewers to care for his fate. Nightwatch is hamstrung by its occasional misogyny, which includes the actions of Martin and Jens. That neither characters seems to learn from their mistakes or experience any kind of redemption is also deeply unsatisfying.

Initially the images of murder victims enhance the tension of the film, but as it progresses they become gratuitously graphic, subtracting from the overall mood. It doesn’t help that the characterisation of the killer is one-dimensional and that the Bornedal writes the plot into corners, only to use telegraphed devices and coincidences to write it out again. By the time Nightwatch reaches its dumb climax and ridiculous equilibrium (one not out of place in the sappiest of rom-coms), all hope of questions being answered and decent character motivations disappears.

While scary in places and making a few good genre asides, including some Psycho-esque strings, Nightwatch remains a film that’s never really sure what it wants to be – part killer-thriller, part dark-buddy-comedy, never really a whole as a movie. Nightwatch is probably best viewed as a precursor to modern torture porn, such as Saw or Hostel, though lacking their inventiveness and cohesive tone.

Reviewed on: 08 Apr 2008
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Nightwatch packshot
A game of dare leads to trouble for two pals in this killer thriller.
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Director: Ole Bornedal

Writer: Ole Bornedal

Starring: Nickolaj Coster-Waldau, Kim Bodnia, Sofie Gråbøl, Ulf Pilgaard

Year: 1994

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Denmark


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