Sundance 2022: WATCHER

Maika Monroe enthralls in a tense, fish-out-of-water paranoia thriller from Chloe Okuno

After her husband’s unexpected promotion at a marketing job, Julia (Maika Monroe) moves with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) to Bucharest, Romania to continue building their life together. Francis is a first-generation Romanian-American, and takes to his new city like returning to an ancestral homeland. Julia, however, is adrift. Leaving a struggling acting career in the States, Julia hopes that she can re-evaluate what she wants out of life somewhere new. However, in a country where she doesn’t speak the language or know the culture, and seemingly everyone else can’t (or won’t) speak English–including her husband–Julia’s life feels more imprisoning and insular by the day. When she notices another apartment-dweller (Burn Gorman) across the courtyard staring into her living room, Julia starts to notice him everywhere around Bucharest. As panic spreads across the city about a decapitating serial killer known as “the Spider,” Julia’s anxiety builds as she fears her voyeuristic neighbor might have sinister plans in store for her.

Chloe Okuno’s debut feature is a gripping thriller that couples the loneliness of living abroad with the maddening anxiety of being gaslit by the ones you love most, creating a relentlessly tense atmosphere of paranoia and dread. The film’s simple premise may owe much to a wide berth of suspense films ranging from The Third Man to Rear Window to Rosemary’s Baby, but Okuno’s precise and insightful eye towards her protagonist’s role as an isolated woman in a foreign land, exquisitely brought to life by Maika Monroe’s magnetic performance, make Watcher a popcorn thriller with surprising and rewarding emotional power.

Even before Watcher makes its turns into explicit genre territory, writer-director Okuno and co-writer Zack Ford mine the loneliness and anxiety of Julia’s new world for all that it’s worth. Beginning with dappled neons on winding cobblestone streets, Julia’s initially captivated by Bucharest’s timeless beauty. As she and Francis settle into their stately apartment, sure to cost a fortune in the U.S., it seems like both of them have finally achieved a long-awaited dream. But most of Watcher is comprised of scenes of Julia alone, with Francis spiriting off to the job that uprooted both of their lives–and each sequence feels progressively more claustrophobic as Julia strives to acclimate. Without treading into the realm of the xenophobic, Julia’s one-sided struggles with the Romanian-English language barrier heighten the sense that her isolation isn’t circumstantial, but deliberate. This is made all the worse by her silent Watcher’s ever-increasing presence–and we debate whether someone’s inexplicable silence is better or worse than them speaking a language she cannot yet understand.

Much like her unrelenting voyeur, Watcher never leaves Julia’s world. Maika Monroe is in every scene of this film, heartily taking on the challenge of guiding the audience through each step of her character’s subtle yet swift emotional journey through the film’s trim 90-minute runtime. Living up to the scream-queen promise of her earlier film It Follows, Monroe is a commanding horror performer, with each new sequence allowing for different shades and nuances to her deepening fears and anxieties. As Watcher dives into darker, sinister territory, Julia’s battle isn’t to determine why her stalker is following her, but to convince those around her to believe what’s going on. It’s prime material for Watcher’s director and actress to explore, as it provides a startlingly new yet potent approach towards all-too-common themes of dismissing women’s claims of wrongdoing or calls for aid. Both Okuno and Monroe deftly navigate the audience through the film’s shifting genre landscape, recognizing the terror that exists in both the malevolent as well as the mundane.

The film’s last few minutes may prove to be a litmus test for how much Watcher’s audience may be willing to surrender themselves to Okuno’s arresting and oppressive vision. For this reviewer, I found Watcher’s finale to be a wholly satisfying callback to classic Hitchcockian thrillers who refused to let their audience off the hook until the final frames. In Watcher’s case, however, Julia, Francis, and their audiences still remain caught–leaving the most challenging and salient points of Julia’s struggle to be understood and believed up for welcome debate long after the credits roll.

Watcher had its premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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