‘The Night Watchman’: Film Review

Courtesy of Impala
An awkward coupling of family drama and underground chiller.

This new departure for Miguel Angel Jimenez is an English-language, U.S.-set thriller set in and around an abandoned mine.

The credit sequence of The Night Watchman and its last 15 minutes might have come from two different films. The first, the story of a bizarre family reunion set in an unspecified backwoods U.S. location, is interesting and troubling; the second, set at the bottom of a mine, is schlocky, over-the-top slasher fare. Pulling the two together was always going to be a tough call, and inevitably filmmaker Miguel Angel Jimenez doesn’t pull it off. But there’s enough going on in this visually compelling homage to the darker side of backwoods Americana to make it ultimately worth watching.

That fabulous, evocative credit sequence shows Jack (musician Matt Horan, debuting as an actor) slowly making his way back home past trucks, mountains, railroads, stray dogs and mailboxes — a kind of shorthand iconography of the backwoods — to the sound of a country ballad. Recently released from jail, he’s bound for the house of his brother, suspiciously over-the-top pastor Mike (Jimmy Shaw), who in an unusual domestic setup is living with Mike’s wife Alma (Kimberley Tell) and deaf child Raymond (Haritz Bisquert) in a run-down Kentucky mining village.

Mike offers Jack work as a night watchman in an abandoned local mine where a tragic accident took place and which is now overseen by a twinkly-eyed old Oirishman, Stan (Denis Rafter) who says Oirish things like “ah, here come me two little leprechauns." Fifty years of life in Deliverance territory have affected Stan’s accent not a jot, and though he gallivants merrily about the place, the film would be better without him — though quite how much better is not clear until the deranged finale. The past of Jack and MIke is troubled, too: Flashback scenes show how their miner abused his family, drove his daughter away and chopped off the head of the family pooch before being discovered by Jack and MIke in the woods, hanging from a tree. “You begin to think that every shadow is Lucifer himself,” says Stan, and indeed you do.

Jack’s arrival disturbs the fragile equilibrium of Mike’s family setup. Mike’s longing for Alma starts to come to the surface as he realizes that she, despite appearances, still loves Jack. There’s enough subtext going on here to generate an interesting storyline, and it’s mostly well-handled by Jimenez, who’s very good at creating an atmosphere of simmering unhealthiness.

But it was a mistake to bring out these hidden family demons in the other part of the story, in which Jack starts to hear strange metallic clanks, drips and human groans in the mine and finds dead rats with needles stuck in them. The abandoned mine (the movie’s Spanish title is La Mina) is indeed a marvelous location (the film was largely shot in Asturias, a mining area in northern Spain), and the work of art director Ion Arretxe is striking both in and outside the mine, but it’s never half as scary as the feelings welling up in MIke back at the cabin, and it certainly never merges organically into the slowly evolving family drama, which interests Jimenez more. (The director’s first two movies explored relationships in Georgia, Siberia and Kazakhstan and had big, ambitious themes.)

In nice contrast to Shaw’s more open style as Mike, Horan makes a suitably laconic, good-looking but troubled central figure. The sexual tension between Alma and him is palpable from the start, though Tell’s role is split uncomfortably down the middle between struggling mother and Final Girl.

Visuals are strong, making full use of the hilly, forested location in a variety of weathers, its expanses contrasting nicely with the claustrophobia underground, and DP Gorka Gomez Andreu moves intelligently and tellingly around, though overdoing the use of the slow zoom. The decision to use music as a way of commenting on the characters’ relationships sometimes works well, as when Jack bonds with Raymond over an out-of-tune guitar, and sometimes less so, as when Jack and Alma croon Hank Williams "I Can’t Help It if I’m Still in Love With You" at one another, too obviously.

Production companies: The Night Watchman, Impala, Caos Films
Cast: Matt Horan, Jimmy Shaw, Kimberley Tell, Denis Rafter, Haritz Bisquert
Director: Miguel Angel Jimenez
Screenwriters: Luis Moya, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Pablo Aramendi
Executive producers: Edmundo Gil, Jose Luis Olaizola
Director of photography: Gorka Gomez Andreu
Production designer: Ion Arretxe
Costume designer: Marta Alvarez Bernardi
Editor: Ivan Aledo
Composer: Mendo and Fuster
Casting director: Roberto Trujillo
Sales: Impala Films

Not rated, 94 minutes