From the outset of director Chloe Okuno‘s Watcher, there is a barrier. Julia (Maika Monroe) is sitting in a taxi, looking out the window as the city of Bucharest reflects on the glass. We are watching her and she is watching us, but there is more than voyeurism at play. Even once the camera moves into the car, the barrier is still there. Instead of being between the audience and Julia, it is between her and the other men in the car. One, a taxi driver, and the other her husband Francis (Karl Glusman). They are speaking Romanian, which Julia does not speak and though Francis offers a brief translation, Julia immediately feels like an outsider. Having just arrived in Bucharest, she is truly on her own. Francis is the only one she knows with the young couple having moved for his job, leaving behind New York City and their American life together for this fresh start. It is somewhat of a new experience for Francis, too, having been born and raised in the United States but with a Romanian mother. Plus, he has his job, which is for the same company he worked for before in the United States, thus he has quick connections. Julia not only has the language barrier, but lives now in isolation whenever Francis works, which he does often. It is the perfect setup for paranoia, an idle mind whirring about and, suddenly, a man seems to be looking through the window across the way and is staring right back at Julia.
Inspired by plenty of voyeuristic-tinged thrillers from the films of Alfred Hitchcock to the legion of films that built off of that ominous vibe, Watcher offers paranoia and uncertainty, but plays on the situation Julia faces. As a serial killer goes about the nearby streets decapitating women, it is natural that Julia would be scared as she is home alone or walking the streets alone all day. Yet, Okuno strikes a key difference. No, men in the same situation – whether James Stewart in Rear Window or otherwise – were not believed right away, but they were not immediately discounted and talked sneeringly about. The barrier in language affords Francis and others a chance to speak about Julia’s fears with such callousness that her isolation only intensifies. She has one person in the world with her, who promptly betrays her and tacitly encourages doubt of her story through his own flippant, dismissive, and misogynistic attitude. As Julia laments to him mid-argument, “Stop talking to me like I’m a child,” she highlights the is infantilizing behavior she has encountered from the very first scene, talked about only for her beauty between her husband and the taxi driver while the sweet smiles of locals as she tries to awkwardly speak Romanian keeps her in a firm second-class citizen status. She is an outsider and everyone knows it, refusing to bridge that gap and understand her in favor of a simple “hysterical woman” explanation whenever she tries to raise alarm about this man watching her across the street. Though a few go through the motions of believing her, when the evidence does not immediately turn up, her feelings and experiences are downplayed by all, whether Francis, strangers, or the police. Not only is she all alone in Bucharest, but she is all alone to combat whatever this “watcher” and stalker has in mind.
Though one may know where Watcher will go, Okuno finds great success in framing such a story through this perspective, building considerable tension and suspense that leaves one on edge. As Julia pours herself into the case and even researches it heavily – a la the popularity of murder mystery shows with women – one can feel the film almost daring the audience to doubt her, as one can easily see how she could just be scared and lonely, letting her mind go wild – and it certainly does, as a few dream sequences show – but to doubt the validity of Julia’s story is to put her life on the line. Maybe it is all in her head, but what risk is there in believing her? Everything feels real to her, and that should ultimately be what matters instead of sitting in wait for a killer to strike.
Okuno and DP Benjamin Kirk Nielsen make for a fantastic team throughout. The overall mise en scène is a key asset, such as Julia and Francis arriving in their new apartment only for the lights to not work, creating a dim and almost ominous vibe for their otherwise all-white, bright, and modern apartment. It feels dingy and creepy, all the while they go to have sex on the couch with Nielsen’s camera slowly pulling out to frame it through the window, perhaps from the watcher’s perspective but playing into the voyeuristic foundation of Watcher. A great early scene finds Julia going to a movie and then a supermarket, only to find the stalker following her to both. It keeps him out of the screen in the theater, offering just a large, shadowy presence behind her with a tight close-up on Julia as her eyes frantically scan the room and she feels him behind her, a suffocating and claustrophobic moment that builds to the supermarket. Unsettling, but still layered in her own doubt as to what she is experiencing, Nielsen uses great selective focus between the aisles. As Julia stands in the foreground, there he is, out of focus in the background. Did he just look at her? He comes into focus, just as her attention is drawn to him, and he is looking away. Was that in her head or was it innocuous on his part?
Together, Okuno and Nielsen use similar tools throughout, either looking up at extreme low-angles at his window, moving through his dark, a mix of close-ups and tracking shots as she walks the streets, plenty of bars and tight corners in both her and the watcher’s apartment building staircases to add to the claustrophobic vibe, or haunting close-ups on Julia as she maneuvers through a strip club where she thinks he is with a disorienting nature to the weird hallways, people, and strippers all around her. It is a film that builds its atmosphere from its looks, representing attention to detail and purposefulness in every frame, making Watcher not only a tense film on the surface but absolutely stunning visually with plenty of visual cues to help establish and add to the film’s unsettling nature.
Maika Monroe is very good in the lead role, hitting all the right notes. From the mild frustration early on as discussions went untranslated to her growing terror at what was unsaid and her righteous rage once she knew enough to translate herself, Monroe shows it all through visual cues to great effect. One needs to take only one look at her face to know how she feels, a quality that suits Watcher well when she is scared and uncertain about her stalker. The look in her eye and the “too scared to move” rigidity of her body make for a potent combination when instantly ramping up the intensity of a scene. As capable as Okuno, Nielsen, and composer Nathan Halpern, are in setting the mood, Monroe proves a great asset in the same regard as her physical performance sets a fantastic tone. Burn Gorman impresses in a supporting role, as well, playing potential stalker Daniel Weber. His awkward, stilted movements and the slimy, almost octopus-like way in which he shakes her hand when they first meet prove enough to send chills down one’s spine, making his mere presence a case for unease. As the story develops and no matter what anybody says, Gorman is great at assuring both Julia and the audience that this man is more than a little off.
An impressive work from director Chloe Okuno, Watcher is as suspenseful as it is beautiful. Great cinematography sets the tone early on, while Maika Monroe and the supporting cast bring the story to life with strong performances. Watcher’s story rarely diverges from the expectations set by the films that inspired it, but with good thematic development and Okuno’s direction, Watcher is a very good film.