Movie Review: “Watcher” (2022)

“Have you noticed anyone watching you in your apartment?”

“No. But maybe I’ve gotten used to having eyes on me.”

“Do I just sound paranoid?”

“Let’s just hope you never find out. The best outcome might be having to live with the uncertainty. Better than getting raped and strangled with the words, ‘I told you so’ on your lips, right?”

In the days before the proliferation/ubiquity of social media made it perhaps a little too easy to discount and compartmentalize all your online relationships like so many flea market baubles, ostensible friends would sometimes invest excessive amounts of time trading back and forth stock answers to a procession of pre-made, painfully generic, minimally insightful personality surveys via email. That was how you talked with girls (bored co-workers, listless former classmates, etc.) in a non-threatening way back then. I’m not actually sure how people do it now. This was innocuous, first date, “getting to know you” stuff almost without fail, though I do recall one particular question, or, rather, answer, that cut through the static and has stuck with me lo these many years. “What is the worst feeling in the world?” asked the invisible hand, innocently, priming the pump for the inevitable, “having your heart broken” sort of response. I rattled off my own angular but telling answer almost without thinking. “The worst feeling in the world,” I wrote, “is feeling alone without actually being alone.” I’d had by then some experience with the kind of lingering malaise that comes from attempting a new life in a new place, having only recently moved from my small-town home base in the hills of East Tennessee to a comparatively cosmopolitan city in the Central Ohio flatlands that was then approaching two million souls. I was suddenly adrift in such a big pond that I didn’t yet qualify as a fish of any size, more likely plankton or a bit of floating algae.

The principal source of unease among many contenders at the heart of Chloe Okuno’s sinister and painfully intimate Watcher, which, despite its slow burn qualities, is every inch a new classic horror movie, is the pervasive, even claustrophobic, sense of feeling trapped that forced immersion in unfamiliar surroundings can impart upon us. I remember my own recurring bouts of epic homesickness, of the sort I would have laughed off before moving. In this case, it is all the more heightened, and compounded tenfold, by a maddening, ever-widening language barrier, as fetching but undistinguished American actress Julia (Maika Monroe of It Follows, providing a magnetic anchor to a situation that feels realistically unmoored, if not quite chaotic, otherwise), having just arrived in her boyfriend Francis’ (Karl Glusman) own ancestral home of Bucharest following a promotion, negotiates both the alien streets of the Romanian capital and the vagaries of work cocktail hours like an unwanted guest, spending her ample solo downtime sitting up in bed, lost in thought amidst the suffocating blank space of her third floor apartment. With Francis working long hours romancing clients, a growing ennui is her only constant companion. Julia’s discomfort is established then crystallized within the scope of a single, four-handed dinner party with Francis’ colleague and his girlfriend, in which, occasional helpful/condescending translations aside, the Romanian trio falls too easily into the rhythms of conversation in their shared tongue, talking around, over, and, eventually, about her. Julia is finally forced into the hall under the auspices of taking out the trash. Freshly escaped, she can still hear their voices clearly. 

Among the scant selling features of Julia and Francis’ nondescript downtown apartment building are its pitifully thin walls and close proximity to a slightly taller, strangely looming edifice whose view from their generous bay window might as well mark it being across the room as across the street. Okuno illustrates this geography in a brilliant early shot through that same window in reverse, showing the young lovers on their first night of occupancy and pulling back and back as they frolic unaware on the pre-furnished couch. At some point, the distance becomes such that the shot clearly turns from a trick into a perspective, though whose POV it offers we don’t yet know. One night, a drained but restless Julia stands by the large, naked window, regarding the rows of dim glass squares set into concrete before her when she notices a man’s shape, backlit and mostly indistinct, one floor above and to her left, trained at an indiscernible angle that nevertheless appears to chart a trajectory straight to her living room.* She looks away instinctively, surprised and unnerved. He is still there when she inevitably looks back, as he is later that night, and then again the next night. And again the next night. Okuno and Monroe share equal, much deserved praise for the speed and conclusiveness with which we the audience recognize this shadowy figure as the threat he will grow to be, even as, in the grand tradition of seemingly every third horror movie released since Don Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, no one else quite believes their story. 

*Imagine if President Kennedy had somehow happened to spot Lee Harvey Oswald over his shoulder in the moments before those fateful shots rang out in Dealey Plaza. Not the subtlest of comparisons, maybe, but it’s where my mind kept going.

Julia has cause for concern. Ten minutes in, the wide-eyed tourist first shown smiling and hopeful on a pre-credit taxi ride through the Bucharest streets and later learning how to say, “I eat carrots” in Romanian is already visibly struggling to maintain her composure. Besides the man in the window, her mind is pulled in multiple directions. She cannot quite tell whether her (only) friendly neighbor Irina is in a healthy or abusive relationship despite being able to hear, if not understand, every word, thump, and worrisome crash that issues from her apartment. Her breathless dinner companions tell of a serial killer called “The Spider”, who is haunting the young women of her district of late, how he breaks into their apartments, incapacitates them with a pillowcase, and presses a knife to their throats, once with enough force to decapitate. On their way home from a date, Julia and Francis pass the active crime scene of the Spider’s latest victim and cannot help but speculate wildly about…everything. Julia begins to sense she is not just being watched from afar but actively followed. She can feel the cold stare of the man sitting right behind her in a sparsely attended movie matinee. Once she ducks out, he seems to follow her into a grocery store, his pursuit becoming more intentional by the second. Writer/director Okuno’s camera is purposely detached throughout Watcher, accentuating the dread and otherness of Julia’s evolving ordeal, but the encounter in the grocery store soon takes on the tenor of a cat and mouse game, and works as a handsome set piece of Hitchcockian suspense, perhaps the only one in a movie verily overflowing with less conventional tension.

Many horror films strive, at least in theory, for capital-R “Realism”, the better to juxtapose against the frenetic or fantastic forces and/or events that hopefully/invariably spring forth once all hell has been properly loosed. In its unfussy authenticity on multiple levels, Watcher is on this front a technical exception that helps illustrate the rule, and demonstrates the comparative inadequacy of similar good faith efforts by even the best of its peers. The film is beautifully written, shot, and acted, with a premium placed on evocative sense of place and effective but unmannered reaction to and action within it. Julia and Francis talk to each other in a wholly unremarkable, still strangely special manner that neatly hurdles stuffy naturalism, much as you would with your own significant other, no more and no less. The couple is unfailingly relatable, their decisions understandable, their motives unimpeachable. Try as one might, with or without electronic assistance, any list of notable movies taking place in Romania will likely end before it has had much chance to begin, but the working class Bucharest setting is also crucial to Watcher’s success. Okuno purposely posits the ancient city as another world entirely, presenting a unified front of language and custom not just foreign but impenetrable, where the heads that poke from the shadows of hallway and alleyway alike never stop chattering or casting aspersions/sideways glances. Even when recounting the most outre details of the Spider’s crimes – even when Watcher itself eventually, irrevocably escalates – Okuno’s writing never strains credulity or makes a narrative misstep.**

**Never one to miss the obvious point, I really can’t overstate how vital it feels to me that “Watcher” has a woman at its helm as both writer and director. Previously known, if at all, for her part in co-directing the gnarly found footage sequel “V/H/S/94”, Okuno’s work on “Watcher announces her as a major talent to watch. I’m not suggesting this story couldn’t be told by a man – it has been before, in fact, many times – just that it would almost certainly not only yield an appreciably different result in general, but also greatly suffer from her specific absence. 

It bears repeating how noteworthy Watcher is for its lack of salacious visual extremes that have been the hallmark of so many recent horror movies. Nothing really happens here that could not have been pulled from or provided fodder for a superior (and gripping) true crime novel. Indeed, Watcher suggests so much yet shows so little that by the time things finally do get grisly, the impact is heightened exponentially. Okuno instead focuses on this single character, charting her emotional erosion and evolution as she is confronted with threats on a variety of fronts, none, of course, more serious than the seemingly benign face in the window across the street, in the theater, in the market (and, later, much closer) – featureless before gaining scary, incremental definition. Holding the film together, even as her grip on the situation falters, is Maika Monroe, who projects the perfect balance of strength and vulnerability as Julia. Here is an ordinary young woman already navigating aggressively unfamiliar terrain who is accosted from outside before she could construct any kind of support system. Francis is well-meaning but increasingly ineffectual. Her neighbors are self-interested and unimpressed. The police are friendly but useless. Okuno and Monroe show Julia thinking on her feet, building up to break down again, recalibrating as the threat inches ever closer. The streets of Bucharest are often empty and ominous here, and Okuno has a striking way of framing and lighting her shots that reliably imparts menace to the commonplace. Watcher is an appropriately deliberate movie, but when it strikes, you definitely feel it – the desperation, mind reeling, heart racing; the pillowcase, as if over your own head; the blade against your neck, pressing down. And the gun in that desk drawer over there, tantalizingly out of reach…

NOTE: Watcher is available for rent or purchase from most outlets, and to steam via the Shudder app.

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