Chloe Okuno's feature debut Watcher is a polished and engaging thriller that is assembled from a host of familiar bits and pieces from superior films, but still works in its own right. And, even if it never quite transcends the strictures of its highly regimented genre, it never feels formulaic. Part of this can be attributed to the central performance by Maika Monroe (It Follows), who plays a particularly fascinating version of the dismissed female protagonist, the one whose concerns and clear articulations of the danger she senses constantly fall on deaf ears. Mia Farrow's Rosemary in Rosemary's Baby (1968) is the preeminent example, and Monroe's Julia is a worthy descendent-a female protagonist who has similarly followed her husband into a mundane domestic existence that eventually puts her life in danger, even though no one seems to believe her. The clear message of the film, like that of Rosemary's Baby, is listen to the woman. What the men around her see as hysteria and paranoia is actually insight and instinct.
When the film opens, Julia and her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), have just arrived in Bucharest, where Francis has taken a high-level marketing job. Francis is Romanian and speaks the language, whereas Julia is American and does not, which immediately isolates her (a recurring motif fins characters around her chatting away in Romanian and then offering a brief translation that is clearly leaving things out). They have a posh new apartment in the center of the city with great furnishings and huge floor-to-ceiling windows that look out at the communist-era brutalist building across the way. Like James Stewart in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), Julia can't help but watch what others are doing through their windows. However, unlike that film, Julia spends most of the film being the object of a particularly intense gaze from someone across the way, who in splendidly creepy fashion stands motionless and stares relentlessly, unwavering even when she dares to return the gaze. Always just slightly obscured behind rain-streaked glass or semi-translucent curtains, this watcher remains an unsettling enigma, a shadow, an unknown presence that Julia intuitively senses is dangerous.
With little else to do with her time, Julia becomes obsessed with the watcher, determined to figure out who he is and why he has chosen her as the object of his gaze. After she is followed at a movie theater and then at a local grocery store by a glum, homely man in a brown jacket (Burn Gorman), she becomes convinced that he is the man across the way. Of course, he may very well be just a local oddball whose lack of social skills and unappealing appearance makes him seem threatening when he is not. Or, on the other hand, he could be not only the man who stares at her each night through the window, but also a serial killer known as the Spider who is preying on women and removing their heads.
Okuno, who both wrote and directed the film (previously, she directed a segment of the 2021 horror anthology V/H/S/94), wastes no time establishing the premise and then slowly but surely turning up the heat. Working with cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen (who has worked primarily in Danish television), she makes great use of space and shallow focus, drawing our attention to hazy movement in the background over Julia's shoulder or just out of her vision, which makes her seem all the more vulnerable, even in broad daylight. Okuno mostly eschews cheap scares and sudden frights in favor of escalating dread coupled with the nagging question of whether Julia is manufacturing something out of nothing-the bored and frustrated housewife going paranoid and seeing killers in every shadow. Yet, Monroe's subtle performance suggests that Julia is more grounded than that, and her growing fears and emotional instability garner more empathy than rejection; the latter emotion is reserved for Francis, who comes across immediately as too shallow and self-interested to be of any real assistance (the film might have been better if he had been presented initially as a potential ally before becoming a hindrance to Julia's safety). Okuno winds Watcher to a satisfying, if largely predictable climax, although kudos must be given to her for the bloody final shot, which stands as a perfectly pitched and darkly humorous "I told you so."
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © IFC Midnight
Overall Rating: (3)
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