There’s a moment early in Chloe Okuno’s Watcher where our lead Julia (played with simmering dread by indie horror darling Maika Monroe, of It Follows and The Guest) stares at a silhouetted figure in a window across the street from her Romanian apartment and lifts a hand to wave, trying to convince herself that the figure she’s seen every night, standing with the shades parted, is not actually looking at her. After a moment, when the figure doesn’t respond, she puts her hand down, relieved. As she goes to turn away, the focus of the camera on Julia, the blurred figure across the way, slowly lifts its hand and waves back to her. It’s moments like this, where Watcher delivers expertly on the promise of mounting tension that the “I’m being stalked but no one will listen” genre is crafted to make.
Julia, a former actress, lost and without purpose, moves to Romania with her boyfriend after he receives a promotion with his job. She’s alone, isolated and struggling to learn the language. As she wanders through the streets, watches movies, shops and sits in her apartment, she begins to worry that someone is watching and following her. There’s a serial killer loose in Bucharest— one who decapitates women—and Julia starts to worry that she’s in danger. Of course, in this type of movie, the people around her (shocking no one that they’re all men) doubt her and try to get her to question herself. They either obviously or subtly suggest that she’s making it up, jumping to conclusions or exaggerating. Her only other personal connection—and the only one who believes her—is her neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea), a former dancer who struggles against violent men in her life.
Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, the cinematographer, does a fantastic job of always drawing your eye to the out-of-focus and dark corners of the shots. I found myself constantly holding my breath as a shot would linger just a little too long, bracing myself for what might happen just outside of the field of clarity. Director and co-writer Chloe Okuno (in her feature directorial debut) does a fantastic job creating the feeling of cold isolation, bathing her star in cold blues, isolated shots and a detached paranoia that mounts as she explores her new world. Okuno’s direction and the screenplay by Zack Ford work in perfectly timed unexpected arrivals and turns, always managing to keep the tension ratcheting up while keeping the pace measured but tight. Monroe manages to toe the horror-ingenue line of being both innocent and young but perceptive and dangerous. She, and her character, really take charge of the film when Julia decides that no one is going to make her question herself and sets off to solve the problems that no one will help her with. That’s when Watcher does really well and feels like it pushes against genre conventions. We know the story of the woman no one will believe, but the story of the woman who sets aside her panic and fear and gets shit done is exciting and manages to feel fresh.
Where Watcher falters some is in the widening of the gap (or lack of distance) between story expectations and story reality. In the stalker genre, the difference between well executed and memorable often lies in how the filmmakers are able to play the established expectations against the revealed truth of the story. One of my favorite examples (and one very simple) is the moment in Silence of the Lambs where Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling is going to visit the house of an associate of a long-dead victim while Jack Crawford and a team of FBI agents get ready to swarm the house of the Buffalo Bill killer, Jame Gumb. Just as the FBI goes to knock down the door, a person opens the door to Clarice’s innocent (and seemingly anti-climactic inquiry), and the person is Jame Gumb. The build up and expectation was that the FBI was going to catch the killer. The reality—Clarice stumbled onto him herself, unexpected and unprepared. Watcher suffers from the lack of any twists of complications beyond what we expect. The reveal and resolution of the stalker/killer is pretty much what we expect from the first moment we’re given any clues about the resolution. Watcher needed one more step or level of complication, without which prevented the film from ascending to the top ranks of its genre. Instead, it’s just a very well made, if not conventional, piece.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Burn Gorman as the perfectly creepy neighbor (the go-to character actor for creepy characters) who is delightful in every scene he’s in.
Anchored by strong performances, great atmosphere, and a command of direction, Watcher lands solid if not special among great paranoid, individual thrillers.
IFC Midnight and Shudder have acquired Watcher for distribution.
Read all of Salt Lake magazine’s 2022 Sundance reviews.