Watcher Synopsis: As a serial killer stalks the city, Julia — a young actress who just moved to town with her husband — notices a mysterious stranger watching her from across the street.
After moving to Bucharest with her workaholic boyfriend, Julia feels lost as a cultural outsider. She spends her days wandering the busy streets, searching for a sense of homely comfort amidst her struggles in adapting. With a notorious serial killer suddenly on the loose, Julia’s isolation magnifies to a heightened state when an enigmatic stranger follows her every move in Watcher.
Watcher, which debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, marks the feature-length debut of writer/director Chloe Okuno (Okuno previously contributed to V/H/S/94). Okuno crafts a technically refined and restrained debut – a haunting descent into predatory male culture that ably enhances its by-the-numbers formula.
Molded in the rhythms of alluring Giallo features, Watcher showcases Okuno as an auteur poised in her singular vision. Meaningless narrative fluff thankfully takes a backseat to Okuno and Cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen’s dynamic visceral profile. The duo capture the longing gazes stalking Julia at each turn, modulating between the sweaty intimacy of close-quarters encounters and wide frames showcasing obsessive gazes from afar. Each framing choice reflects the same smooth movement and impressive precision within Okuno’s detached color pallet. Dripping with paranoia and ominous dread, Watcher often mines its most impactful moments when allowing the wordless cat-and-mouse game to take center stage.
It’s no secret stalker features are commonplace in horror, but Okuno imbues the genre’s traditions with a sharp new lens. Her revision of Zack Ford’s screenplay aims at the sinister byproducts of the predatory behavior haunting Julia at every step.
The wordless stalker is just one of her various opponents, with the conformist culture of denial and doubt surrounding Julia’s accusations reflecting our society’s own ambivalence to severe female claims. Male hubris and misunderstanding further haunts Julia like a spectrum lurking around the corner. At her best, Okuno’s deft abilities convey the deeply-seated systematic issues surrounding victim-blaming through Julia’s experiences.
In a performance that requires rigid internalization, Maika Monroe continues cementing herself as a modern horror star (she’s also fantastic in It Follows and The Guest). Monroe inhabits Julia’s constant discomfort through cold gazes and subtle techniques. It’s a frequently wordless performance that still speaks volumes about the character’s pained existence. Character actor extraordinaire Burn Gorman also is fittingly unnerving as the somber stalker.
Watcher does endure some familiar falterings of debut features. Okuno’s screenplay reaches a screeching halt regarding the film’s dramatic finale. The writer/director ultimately opts for a straightforward approach that viewers can see coming from miles away. While the finish offers some thematic punch, the results feel more like a didactic thesis statement of Okuno’s sentiments than an artistically-inspired conclusion.
Falteirngs aside, Watcher delivers on its promise of atmospheric and intelligent thrills. I am excited to see where Okuno goes from here with her promising career.