[Sundance 2022 Review] 'Watcher' is Unsettling Horror That Dares You to Look Over Your Shoulder
Listen. To. Women…
…There are countless stories of women not being believed when they think someone is a threat. They have no doubt that someone is after them. Yet they go unheard. Not because they don’t have proof. But because they are women, and in the eyes of men, that’s all it takes to think the most reasonable explanation is that they’re hysterical (ugh, that word). It’s an experience that virtually every woman has dealt with in some fashion, one that director Chloe Okuno viciously confronts in her debut feature, Watcher, which just had its world premiere at Sundance.
Written by Okuno and Zack Ford, Watcher stars It Follows’ Maika Monroe, returning to a similar role in which she plays Julia, a woman who has just moved to Bucharest with her fiancé Francis (Karl Glusman) for his new job. Stuck at home with nothing to do and in a foreign country where she doesn’t speak the language, Julia finds herself staring out the window…and catching a man in the apartment building across the street staring right back. Soon, Julia begins to suspect he is following her. Meanwhile, a serial killer is stalking women in the streets. Could it be him? Julia thinks so, but unable to communicate with anyone but her husband, who himself does not believe her, Julia begins to sink into paranoia, forced to wonder if she could be wrong, but positive she isn’t.
Between Watcher and her segment “Storm Drain” in V/H/S/94 (hail Raatma), Chloe Okuno is quickly becoming one of my new favorite directors. She is a talent everyone needs to look out for, because debut features just aren’t ordinarily as impressive as Watcher is.
During an introduction to the film, Okuno mentioned that Watcher is her effort to express the fear and isolation which women feel about things that are difficult to communicate to others, and she succeeds brilliantly. Watcher puts you directly in the shoes of the female experience and forces you to walk a mile in the voyeuristic hell that so many women face daily.
In a new city and knowing just a handful of words in the language, Julia is a fish out of water. Francis is all she has as a “guide” so to speak, but he’s more like a fishing hook dragging her deeper into a dark abyss. Right from the beginning, Julia is isolated as Francis speaks another language with the cab driver. Okuno makes the smart choice of not including subtitles to make us feel as confused and alone in the moment, wondering what’s being said and unable to know, especially frustrating because it seems to be about Julia. Even more frustrating is that Francis doesn’t appear to be telling her all of what’s being said, a trend which continues with friends, neighbors, the police, everyone. No matter how many people are around, Julia feels completely alone.
Except for the pair of eyes she can sense watching her constantly.
I can’t imagine a better choice to play Julia than Monroe. Maika is exceptional at projecting a quiet fear that burrows deep into the viewers, and this may be her best performance yet. In Watcher, Monroe is a captivating one woman show of anxiety, frustration, and boiling paranoia.
Part Rear Window and part Rosemary’s Baby, Okuno keeps a voyeuristic focus on Monroe, using wide shots in wider spaces to instill the sense that Julia is completely isolated but never away from wandering eyes. Benjamin Kirk Nielsen’s cinematography turns us into the voyeur, an uncomfortable feeling as we watch Julia’s mind slip, confidence waning, in a devastating performance from Monroe. She grips your heart and makes you want to beg for someone, anyone, to listen to her.
It isn’t the voyeuristic nature of Watcher that makes the film so uncomfortable though. What Okuno does differently, with a masterful touch, I might add, is make us, the viewer, feel as if we are the ones being watched as well. Every inch of Watcher is consumed by a voracious darkness that eats up any ounce of comfort. Shadows creep and crawl all around Julia. Even the Watcher, as we’ll call him, is mostly seen as a shadow in the window across the street at first. In contrast to the wide shots, Okuno employs extreme close-ups of Julia whenever she senses him around, to the point that we beg the camera to give us a look at him. But it doesn't. The film practically turns the Watcher into a ghost. He’s everywhere, but nowhere. Time and again, Julia attempts to get a look at the Watcher, but can’t see his face, adding to the horrifying thought that he may not even be real. One heart-pounding sequence in particular in which the Watcher sits directly behind Julia in a dark theater and leans in close had my nerves screaming. “I had a sense that someone was always behind me, even when I was alone,” mentions one character. Well, Okuno deserves a round of applause, because she nails that feeling to a T. Watch Watcher alone in the dark. I guarantee you’ll look over your shoulder at least once.
For as genuinely scary as it is, Watcher is also deeply upsetting in the way it forces Julia to question her own sanity, the way society often does to women in peril that no one believes. Time and again, Francis, the police, they all treat her like a hysteric child. Even her neighbor, Irina (Madalina Anea), the only person that somewhat believes Julia, thinks it’s best to not know if the Watcher is truly stalking her or if it’s some misunderstanding.
The plot itself isn’t so different from what’s out there, but Okuno is an artist with suspense, taking the familiar to another level. Watcher is spine-tingling, edge of your seat terror. Well-crafted and frightening as hell, it creeps up the skin of your back and gently caresses your neck. That cold shiver you just felt? Watcher is ninety minutes of that.
Listen to women. Listen to Okuno. Watch Watcher.
By Matt Konopka
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