Many thrillers try too hard to be original. They try to incorporate a twist to their intriguing premise. They throw a curveball at the midpoint to make you second guess how it all ends. Too often, all of these storytelling strategies fail to pay off and were never even necessary to begin with.
Director Chloe Okuno approaches Watcher with a steady, confident hand. Julia (Maika Monroe) moves to Bucharest with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman). She notices a male figure staring at her from across the street. She begins to feel like she’s being stalked by him. One woman’s fear. 90 minutes. That’s all you need. You can’t get any more simple and efficient than that.
Okuno gives us 90 minutes because she knows exactly what she wants out of her story. There’s no room for doubting Julia because the film is not about that. It’s not shot nor edited in a way that makes you question her sanity. You are on her side. The most exciting part of Watcher comes from how Okuno builds on that suspense. In the very first dialogue scene, we learn that Julia doesn’t speak Romanian. The film even ignores putting English subtitles on screen for us, a technique seen before in films like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth –both films use the lack of subtitles to the audience as a method to feel the protagonist’s isolation.
And Julia is most certainly alone. Her husband goes to work every day, which means she’s either stuck in their apartment all day doing nothing, or she can wander around a city she doesn’t know, full of streets that feel both occupied and abandoned, where everywhere she turns she could possibly be in danger. And then of course, there’s the man (Burn Gorman) who she keeps seeing again and again.
That’s the key question there: is he staring at her? Or is she staring at him? Perhaps that gaze is what makes Watcher feel so confident in its execution. You can have a familiar premise that brings back memories of Rear Window and Rosemary’s Baby, but Okuno uses the city of Bucharest to her advantage. Most of all, she understands where the camera should be, because the camera is Julia’s only ally.
With that in mind, several interactions where characters do not believe Julia may be cliche on paper, but on screen, they bring out the empathy in us. You’re rooting for someone to believe her, and if no one is going to, then you’re hoping she finds the strength in her to confront the fear herself. Monroe is superb in finding that balance. It’s a significant step up from her performance in It Follows, and in an interesting way, feels like a continuation and an evolution. It’s a fantastic lead performance in a film that is neatly self-contained and understands its own scope.
It’s easy to sell Watcher as a David Fincher-esque thriller and then proceed to call it unoriginal or slow-burn with a negative connotation attached to the word, but it doesn’t have to be original. It’s the voice telling it and the gaze that makes it memorable. In terms of genre, yes, Watcher has its tropes. Yes, plot-wise, the third act is predictable. But it’s all done with care and attention that it gave me a lot to hold onto.
Thrills aside, Watcher taps into a very real anxiety. It’s about a woman feeling alienated – from strangers to peers to even her husband – and how that alienation grows into fear day by day. It’s about not being seen. Or in this case, not being seen except by a stalker who might just be a serial killer.
But Okuno isn’t interested in reveling in that dread. She’s interested in conquering it. If you were seeing yourself in Julia, rooting for her since the start of the film, for her to be happy and free, then you might just find the climax and ending of Watcher to be extremely satisfying. I certainly did. I ate up every pixel of that last shot.
The review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute