By: Brendan Graham
Ever feel like you’re being watched? The hair standing up on your neck with that dreadful feeling of someone’s eyes following you with every movement you make? Not only is it an uncomfortable sensation, but it can also be rather dangerous. What if someone is actually following you, and they intend to do you harm? This rather nightmarish scenario is only made worse by living in a country where you don’t speak the language, being surrounded by people who don't believe you, and to top it all off, there’s a serial killer on the loose. This tense concoction fuels WATCHER, a Hitchcockian thriller that plays the slow game, but the payoff is worth it.
In Chloe Okuno’s feature film debut, a young American woman named Julia (Maika Monroe, It Follows) moves to Romania with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman, The Neon Demon) after he is promoted at work. Julia is trying her best to learn the language, figure out the layout of the city, and overcome the loneliness she feels because of how much Francis works. While she adjusts to her new life, there is a vicious serial killer that is decapitating women, and one of the latest victims happens to be in the same neighborhood. The language barrier proves to be a lot to handle, with many of the neighbors unable to understand her ,except for the next-door neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea), whom she quickly befriends.
Night after night, Julia begins to notice a strange man (Burn Gorman, Crimson Peak) that seems to be staring into their window. She isn’t sure if he’s actually looking at her, so one evening she waves at him, and is horrified to see that he waves back. Now, Julia sees this man everywhere, and is convinced that he’s stalking her, but no one else seems to believe her - including her husband, who jokes about it with colleagues (in Romanian, so Julia can’t understand very well). As Julia becomes more paranoid, we also begin to wonder if someone is genuinely following her, or if it is all in her head.
WATCHER is a fairly simple narrative that is executed quite well, although sometimes the tropes are much too familiar. You’ve got the standard elements of a tense thriller, and the mystery behind who is, well, watching Julia. You’ve got the neighbors that just think she’s trying to make trouble, the police who don’t take her seriously for a moment, and her own husband who quickly decides she’s just losing her mind, and shows absolutely no sympathy for the rest of the film. There’s a strong theme of gaslighting Julia, and it is maddening.
Maika Monroe absolutely sells every minute of this struggle with well-performed emotional depth. There’s very little character development, but Monroe takes what notes she’s given, and runs with it, and you really end up falling in love with Julia, which helps the story along. Also worth mentioning, Gorman who is simply called "Watcher," sells the ambiguous charm of a man who may or may not have nefarious plans.
The cinematography is striking, and adds to the chills as the story unfolds, with shades of greys and blues washing over the tone of the film, and really playing up the threat of the ominous shadows that seem to be all around Julia when she ventures outside. That use of shadow is a great strength, because as the viewer, we are constantly looking to see if there is someone there watching her. Is it the creepy neighbor? Is it the serial killer? The use of building intensity adds to the general feeling of unease. At no point do we feel Julia is safe, and as the audience, we also feel like we’re in danger. I also really appreciated the lack of subtitles for a lot of the Romanian dialogue, because it makes the viewer feel just as isolated as Julia is.
As I mentioned before, the story is pretty simple, and often makes for a bit of predictability. Savvy viewers will likely pick up the pattern of events early on, and will also find some of the characters to be a bit dull and one-note. WATCHER sticks with a slow, but building pace that may scare off some more impatient viewers. However, those who do stick it out to the end are rewarded with a crescendo of violence that may catch many audience members off guard. If you found yourself feeling sleepy towards the end, it will throttle you back into attention.
While predictable and a little too by-the-book at times, WATCHER is a beautiful exercise of paranoia and well-crafted restraint. With a great performance by Monroe, striking cinematography, and a slow, but calculated pace, WATCHER is absolutely worth your time, and may have you feeling much more cautious when looking outside your window at night.
WATCHER is now available on VOD platforms.