***/**** Image A- Sound B Extras C
starring Nikolaj Waldau, Sofie Graaboel, Kim Bodnia, Lotte Andersen
written and directed by Ole Bornedal
by Walter Chaw Dark and moody with a dash of post-modern relational philosophy, Ole Bornedal's Nightwatch (Nattevagten) is a taut and unusual thriller that has been remade by the same director into the English-language Nightwatch, starring Ewan McGregor, Nick Nolte, and Patricia Arquette. In its original Dutch-language incarnation (seen by over 15% of the entire Dane population), Nattevagten is lent a good deal of weight by a satisfying subplot involving the nature of love and the rites of passage young men endure to become men in one another's eyes. It sounds a little heady for what boils down to fairly typical serial-killer intrigue, but the uniformly fine performances, the uncompromising though tasteful direction, and the sharp screenplay (by Bornedal) combine to make the film something a little finer than what its barest plot synopsis would indicate. It reminds most of another foreign thriller largely ignored on American shores released in the same year, Anthony Waller's Mute Witness.
Martin Bork (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a law student who gets a part-time job as the night watchman at the county morgue. He's taken on his rounds the first night, shown the jars of body parts, the tubs of body parts, and the cooler full of corpses that conveniently features a pull cord dangling over each table in case there's a misdiagnosis and a gravely injured (or just very pallid) patient should wake and need to summon help. That we're told what the function of the cords is in the opening minutes is something we like to call "foreshadowing." Even knowing to expect certain things in the progression of the plot, that Nattevagten still manages to be tense and gravid during each of the three sequences featuring Martin on his graveyard shift is a testament to Bornedal's skill.
A perk of being a morgue attendant is that Martin is privy to inside information on some of the more recent victims of a serial killer stalking the Copenhagen streets, preying on prostitutes. Helping Martin satisfy his curiosity is Kommisæren Wörmer (Ulf Pilgaard), a disarmingly candid police detective who visits the morgue regularly to brood over the young women he's been unable to protect. Pilgaard's performance here--part deadpan, part ingratiating--is fantastic. That it only separates itself slightly from the rest of the cast speaks to the entire company's professionalism.
Martin's girlfriend is the beautiful Kalinka (Sofie Gråbøl), his best friend is Jens (Kim Bodnia, who played Patrick Bateman in a Danish stage version of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho)--one is very good for him and the other is a terrible influence. One night, on a dare, Jens talks Martin into going out on a date at a swank restaurant with a hooker named Joyce (Rikke Louise Andersson). What follows is one of the most brilliantly uncomfortable moments that I've seen in some time as Jens bribes Joyce into doing progressively more humiliating things. The crux of the film is this small scene between Martin, Jens, and Joyce: there is a revisiting of a running subtext concerning the relationship between the sign and the signified ideal of "love," an introduction of several planted elements that will resurface later in the film, and the first inklings of the possibility for evolution for the Jens character, who, to that point, had been an unrepentant jackass.
All three story threads (Martin's job at the morgue, Martin's personal relationships, the serial killer's course), converge in a surprisingly taut and satisfying third act that is bloody without being exploitive, and terrifying without resorting to jump scares and cheap shots. The identity of the killer, while not a terribly big surprise, is revealed with class and an appropriate amount of understatement. And while the girlfriend is predictably put into peril, it's not in the way that you would expect--it happens without compromising her dignity and strength. The set design by Søren Kragh Sørensen and the lighting schemes by cinematographer Dan Laustsen (including an incredibly effective, and subtle, buzzing fluorescent right outside of the morgue cooler), give Nattevagten an almost unbearable tension. It is, technically speaking, a triumph.
Ultimately, though, the film is about a pair of young men discovering the value of their friendship, the value of their romantic relationships, and the burden weighting the words that they speak. You could say that I'm surprised to find this level of depth in a film about a morgue attendant and a serial killer (especially as the profundity is all but jettisoned in the Steven Soderbergh-scripted American version), and I'm loathe to give it credit for being more than an unconventional coming-of-age film, but Ole Borendal's Nattevagten is a little better than the sum of its parts--and its parts are pretty damned fine.
Anchor Bay shepherds Nattevagten to DVD in a beautiful anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) presentation that handles the soft yellows and greens of Laustsen's lighting themes with admirable shading and scale. There is a nice crispness and no evidence of edge enhancement or colour bleed. All in all, a solid visual transfer, noting especially a Kubrick-ian moment about half-an-hour in as a bank of blue fluorescents flicker on down a long hallway. The Dolby 5.1 surround remix (courtesy of Chace Digital) gets a nice workout in the third act, with the sub-woofer throbbing a subtle bass beat and the rear speakers chiming in at key startling moments.
Ole Bornedal contributes a commentary track that is only interesting when he describes Ewan MacGregor's reluctance to resemble Coster-Waldau's performance too closely in the English-language remake--a strange objection, as MacGregor should have known better, being the spitting image of Coster-Waldau, and given that Bornedal obviously wished to replicate his original vision almost shot-for-shot. Bornedal's incredulity at MacGregor's reticence to be a doppelgänger is the sole moment in the commentary where the very soft-spoken director musters anything in the way of heat. Worse, Bornedal seems primarily interested in narrating the action unfolding on the screen as opposed to offering any kind of real insight into the making of the piece. As most people will go to the commentary track after a viewing of the film, having the director explain in stultifying detail what's unfolding before our eyes is, to say the least, useless. A choppy trailer rounds out the sparse package. Originally published: June 29, 2001.