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THE WATCHERS Review: A Compelling Irish Horror Film

Courtesy New Line Cinema

By Sarah Musnicky

The debut feature is always the thing that sets the stage for a filmmaker's future. Based on THE WATCHERS, writer/director Ishana Night Shyamalan's future has potential. This potential has previously shown itself in the episodes of Servant she wrote and directed for the Apple TV+ series. The question remains, though, whether or not the potential found in THE WATCHERS is enough to carry her through an already unforgiving filmmaking environment.

In THE WATCHERS, we follow Mina (Dakota Fanning), a 28-year-old artist residing in Ireland. Bits and pieces of scenes leading up to the hook of the film reveal she's avoiding the grief surrounding her mother's death. At times, Mina wants so desperately to escape that she pretends to be other people. It is a scene included that generates more questions than answers, even after the film's end. Regardless, Mina is going through the motions.

One day, Mina is tasked with delivering a bird to a zoo in the Irish countryside. It seems innocuous enough until she is driving in the middle of the forest. Her GPS goes haywire, and her car shuts off, forcing her to make her way on foot with the bird. With the light fading fast, Mina runs across an older woman in the woods. Forced to choose to enter a suspicious shelter or see what might follow once the sun sets, Mina enters the shelter.

Based on the novel by A.M. Shine, much of THE WATCHERS hinges on the mystery surrounding who these titular watchers are and how Mina and the group will make it out of their scenario. Through exposition, mostly conveyed by Madeline (Olwen Fouere), the audience learns, along with Mina, the rules of the forest and the usage of the shelter. If any rule is broken, there will be consequences.

The reliance on expositional dialogue does hinder the story, particularly in the film's third act. There's some explanation expected. Is it really a horror film without rules? Without iteration? But when the final reveal in THE WATCHERS is executed, the impact of it is lessened due to another deployment of exposition. It serves as a lesson in showing, not telling.

While Madeline whispers of this unseen threat, the other two occupants of the shelter face their own dilemmas. Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) is the youngest and the only man in the group. Through Finnegan's acting and some notes here and there, Daniel is not emotionally together. It creates a natural tension between him and the other women, a tension that Shyamalan and Finnegan are able to stoke until boiling over.

Ciera (Georgina Campbell), regrettably, reads the least fleshed out of the characters both on the page and in performance. Her focus is on finding her husband, but outside of that goal, there's not much she's given to do in THE WATCHERS. What emotional peaks there are for her character are whimpers when tossed up against the more attention-grabbing characters onscreen.

Courtesy New Line Cinema

It is Madeline and Mina who take centerstage, wisdom and defiance clashing against one another as one tries to teach the other. While certain elements of Mina's character introduced at the beginning of THE WATCHERS raise more questions than answers, it is clear by the film's end that Madeline and Mina are mirrors. They are so similar despite their differences, and this resonates throughout in Fouere's and Fanning's performances, respectively.

The main character of THE WATCHERS is its setting in the Irish forests. Shyamalan and cinematographer Eli Arenson capture the forest in a cold and foreboding light. The colors used to paint the screen are blues and greys, visually penetrating the audience with the supernatural chill. The forest is a prison, and whether it's long shots of trees from far away or (a little too many) pan shots of the trees that surround Mina and company, the visual language tells its story.

For a story like this that relies on staying mostly in the same place, Shyamalan shows promise in successfully pacing out the tension to get from point A to point B. The tension is high and bristling, with the cooler winter months heightening that slow-boiling frustration. Shyamalan's direction in the second part of the film accentuates this. Where the pacing and tension fumble are in the film's last fifteen minutes.

The footprints leading to the film's big twist are stamped all across the story, with clues paving the way for the audience before our characters catch up. Despite this, when the twist comes, it lands well. It's a confirmation of all that has been foreshadowed and laid bare for us to see.

The same can be said for the time that it takes for THE WATCHERS to be revealed. We hear them long before we see them, a useful tactic that allows the audience's imagination to conjure up everything and anything. Sticking close to the source material, Shyamalan crafts creatures for the screen that will terrify, and enhance the danger that we likely never felt with this folkloric creature before.

Ishana Night Shyamalan's potential reveals itself in the visual language she deploys in THE WATCHERS as well as crafting a suspenseful, slow-build horror onscreen. Her experience with both music videos and working on Servant pays off well here. However, the reliance on exposition to carry over some of the plot points takes away from the mystery, allowing the audiences to figure out twists long before they are executed. If Shyamalan finds that balance and blends it with the clear eye she has for visuals and suspense, she's got a good road ahead of her.

THE WATCHERS is now playing in theaters internationally and will be released in North America on June 7, 2024.


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