Maika Monroe leads this tense thriller about female vulnerability
Dir: Chloe Okuno. US. 2022. 95 mins.
Anxiety seeps into every frame of Watcher, a thriller about a young woman in a foreign land who suspects that someone is stalking her, but can’t get anyone to believe her. Chloe Okuno’s feature directorial debut creates an unnerving headspace, immersing us in the terror experienced by the main character - which feels very real to her even if it might be something she’s imagining. A clear metaphor for sexual violence against women — not to mention society’s inclination to assume that they’re exaggerating — the film is led by Maika Monroe’s fragile performance, which grounds the story even when the proceedings start to become formulaic.
Will appeal to genre buffs, but there’s no mistaking the thoughtful, troubled commentary going on as well.
Watcher screens as part of Sundance’s US Dramatic Competition, and potential buyers will respond to Okuno’s tonal control and the script’s #MeToo timeliness. Laced with horror elements — fair warning, there’s a serial killer on the loose — Watcher will appeal to genre buffs, but there’s no mistaking the thoughtful, troubled commentary going on as well.
Monroe plays Julia, an American woman who has abandoned an acting career and moved to Bucharest with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman), who has just been promoted at his marketing firm. Not speaking the language — Francis, whose family hails from Romania, does — and at loose ends while he spends long hours at the office, Julia starts to notice that she is being followed by a man who she believes to be a neighbour (Burn Gorman). Francis is sceptical, but Julia becomes increasingly convinced that this stranger might be the murderer who is killing women across Bucharest, sometimes decapitating his victims.
Okuno, who also co-wrote the screenplay, works with cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen and production designer Nora Dumitrescu to give us a Bucharest of elegant, spacious apartments and immaculately composed frames. From the start, Watcher makes us feel as if someone is peering in on Julia and Francis, and the tingling paranoia only increases once she spots a silhouetted figure gazing from his window across the street. Nathan Halpern’s string-laden score amplifies the dread, although Julia doesn’t have much proof to back up her claim that she is being pursued by this man at the cinema or in the grocery store. There’s a subjectivity to everything that Okuno shows us — we share Julia’s growing nervousness, yet we can’t say for sure if this man is a threat.
This is, of course, Watcher’s larger point, hinting at all the times women don’t feel safe and are then rebuffed by the authorities, who can’t do anything because no actual crime has occurred. (The film’s lone cop is essentially worthless.) Glusman plays Francis as a concerned spouse, while showing hints of the character’s frustration that, to his mind, Julia is making things up due to the stress of being isolated. But Watcher dramatises how her anxiety is exacerbated by her husband and his coworkers’ refusal to bring her into conversations when they’re all speaking Romanian. It’s bad enough that Francis makes Julia feel like she’s crazy — he also adds to her loneliness by not including her in his new world.
Monroe, who previously starred in It Follows — a title that could have applied to this picture as well — has to convince the audience that what Julia is experiencing is real, while at the same time making room for enough ambiguity so that we don’t know for sure. Dream sequences and other filmic techniques keep us and Julia off-balance, leaving her doubting what she perceives. Even the casting of Gorman as the potentially dangerous neighbour is provocative: with his malicious glare and severe haircut, the stranger appears menacing, but for much of Watcher we only have suspicions, nothing tangible. When Julia decides boldly one night to follow the man, the result is a surprising discovery that is, nonetheless, hard to figure out.
While Watcher means to illustrate how women feel powerless to protect themselves when no one will listen to their fears of being stalked, Okuno wants to create enough suspense so that the answer to the mystery of what’s going on isn’t clear-cut. Unfortunately, this means dispensing a fair amount of red herrings, which often come across as obvious misdirections. Similarly, Okuno occasionally resorts to cliched tropes of the thriller and horror genres, which butt up against the film’s sophisticated air of unease. Ultimately, the reveal isn’t especially shocking, but even at the end, Watcher remains steadfastly on Julia’s side, knowing full well that, when no one believes you, the only person you can rely on is yourself.
Production companies: Spooky Pictures, Lost City
International sales: AGC, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Mason Novick, John Finemore, Aaron Kaplan, Sean Perrone, Roy Lee, Steven Schneider, Derek Dauchy
Screenplay: Zack Ford and Chloe Okuno
Production design: Nora Dumitrescu
Editing: Michael Block
Cinematography: Benjamin Kirk Nielsen
Music: Nathan Halpern
Main cast: Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman, Burn Gorman