“I can see everything up here – it’s like I know what’s going to happen next,” is the chilling description Stephen Graham’s put-upon CCTV operator gives his job in The Watchman (Channel 4). It also perfectly sums up how this brilliantly disturbing thriller taps into our fears about today’s surveillance society.
Pitched like a particularly nightmarish episode of Black Mirror inspired by Hitchcock’s Rear Window, documentarian Dave Nath’s latest modern horror story makes many uncomfortable points about privacy, justice and the marginalisation of certain sections of society. But this is no diatribe on the morality of a Big Brother state. It’s really a crushingly human story about a broken man who just wants to do the right thing for once in his life.
Graham is Carl, who, like a dystopian guardian angel, spends his nights in a bleak, dark office keeping a watchful eye on his small town through a bank of CCTV screens (which somehow feels even seedier than Zeke Hawkins’ set-up in Sliver). If he spots a crime – like a gang of youths dealing drugs – he reports it to the police. But when he gets frustrated by their lack of action he decides to take the law into his own hands, setting off a chain of events which put the lives of his loved ones, as well as his own, in danger.
At barely 50 minutes, the drama unfolds at a break-neck pace, the camera locked onto Graham’s every expression as impulsive excitement turns to sheer panic when Carl’s situation becomes more and more hopeless. Sharing the ‘no frills, maximum thrills’ approach of Nath’s previous drama The People Next Door – minimal incidental music, claustrophobic setting – for most of its runtime The Watchman is dizzyingly tense.
Graham is spectacular as the flawed Carl, by the way, giving a powerful performance in what is basically a one-man show. Standing (well, mostly sitting) alone at the heart of the action, Graham is thoroughly engaging throughout, even as Carl transitions from empathetic everyman who loves his family to impulsive wannabe hero who tries to make a difference but ends up crossing a line that brings dire consequences.
There are flaws of course – some of the plot developments feel convoluted, supporting characters are appallingly clichéd – but as a high-octane thriller, this inventively dark tale will have you glued to the screen just as much as The Watchman can’t look away from his.