THE WATCHERS is a Half-Baked Debut from Ishana Night Shyamalan

A clunky adaptation of the novel by A.M. Shine fleetingly shows potential for its director

There’s so much of The Watchers that feels laden with promise: a smart concept, polished and textured production values, a beguiling lead performance from Dakota Fanning, and a directorial flourish from Ishana Night Shyamalan that aligns perfectly with the horror-mystery vibe of the tale. For all these riches, however, The Watchers stumbles where it matters most: the script.

After a derivative prologue fails to set the level of suspense needed to sustain the film, we meet Mina (Fanning), a troubled woman, burdened by the guilt of her past, who finds escape in random encounters while assuming a different identity. By day, she works in a pet store, a position that one day tasks her with transporting a parrot to a neighboring county in Ireland. En route, a freak electrical fault causes her car to break down in a secluded forest. Stumbling through the wilderness, Mina finds mysterious markers and unusual burrows in the ground. As night creeps in, she comes across Madeline (Olwen Fouéré, with another reliable turn in genre fare), a woman who urgently beckons Mina towards an ominous concrete structure. Once inside, and the door is firmly bolted, Mina meets the other residents–Daniel (Oliver Finnegan), and Ciara (Barbarian‘s breakout star Georgina Campbell)–and learns that this structure is “the coop.” Both sanctuary and cage, it offers a one-way window for creatures that stalk the night to gaze upon this trio which has now become a quartet. Madeline informs Mina of the rules she must abide by now that she has come to this place, all centered around their nightly sequestering to this structure where they must live and perform for the titular watchers to ensure their continued survival. Months of entrapment have stamped out most of the resistance within the coop, but Mina’s arrival stirs up both danger and a new determination to escape.

For any film, you want to judge the filmmaker on their own merits, especially with a debut feature. With a surname like Shyamalan, it’s hard to resist doing so and, frankly, the marketing strategy of The Watchers wholly invites this comparison. Like her father, serving here as producer on the film, Ishana certainly has a grasp of the visual medium of storytelling; she uses sights, shadows, and sounds to build a level of intrigue, wonder, and suspense. This is aided by cinematography from Eli Arenson that flits from verdant to moody, so perfectly drawing from the Irish setting and use of its mythology; a moonlit reveal of the monster’s silhouettes is a particular standout. But for Ishana Night Shyamalan, this is not just her debut feature as a director; The Watchers also showcases her writer’s credit, alongside original author A.M. Shine. Their screenplay is not just where the film stumbles, but where common critiques of her father also can be brought to bear.

Aside from a few visual flourishes, The Watchers fails to build any real sense of tension or mystery. This partly comes from a plot that feels both derivative and predictable, including the inevitable (and drawn out) final ‘twist.’ While the film is visually rather elegant, its construction and pacing are anything but. The film lurches from one scene to another, occasionally delivering hurried exposition dumps. The mythology and meaning of the film are clunkily leveraged and badly integrated. There is some poorly developed messaging within the film, including commentaries on colonialism, a ham-fisted nod to reality TV (and hate-watching), and yes, even an exploration of trauma; these elements, however, all feel so perfunctory that one wouldn’t be blamed for missing them. Most egregiously are narrative moments and character beats that make sense only in service of lurching toward the next plot point. When The Watchers isn’t achingly dull, it all feels remarkably stupid, and not in a good, entertaining way. Being unfamiliar with the original novel, I’m uncertain whether these flaws are true to the original text or a result of a poor translation to the big screen. Either way, they should have been addressed to better suit the medium at hand.

The Watchers looks to nestle into the realm of Irish folk horror, yet sadly comes across as more befitting a young adult audience when it truly needs more of a grown-up bite. A beguiling look and direction do not make up for problematic pacing, rote storytelling, and clunky writing. It’s a half-baked affair, to be sure–yet while a second viewing is very unlikely, I’d be curious to watch what this young Shyamalan does next.

The Watchers hits theaters on June 7th courtesy of Warners Brothers.

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