Like John Carpenter before her, writer-director Chloe Okuno understands the dangerous allure and cinematic power of a faint human shape. We’re compelled to look longer than we should and give focus to any fear we feel, and the very outline of a looming body suggests all manner of monstrosity, actual or amplified. And for most of the way, Okuno’s feature-length debut, Watcher, embarks on an engrossing, obsidian odyssey of danger both observed and perceived.
If only its destination weren’t a disappointment. At best, it’s charitably metaphorical. At worst, it’s an absurdly implausible sendoff. Either way, it’s up there with The Outfit as this year’s flimsiest conclusion to an otherwise solid genre chamber piece. (The film opens today in select theatres before a June 21 VOD debut and an eventual streaming run on Shudder.)
Julia (Maika Monroe) is a former actress who has moved with her workaholic ad-man husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), to Bucharest, Romania. It’s a promotion on paper for Francis, who speaks Romanian. In reality, his linguistic advantage is just a springboard to substantial absences that leave Julia to her own devices as a stranger in a strange land.
Draped in droopy Oxfords that emphasize her smallness and dwarfed by decrepit architecture, Julia realizes in slow motion that she was stranded the moment she agreed to this uprooting. Returning to the horror genre after her breakout turns in The Guest and It Follows, Monroe masters the way someone’s individuality is minimized when muddling through a new, unfamiliar language. For Julia, that is both the foreign Romanian tongue and her increasingly icy interactions with Francis, who clearly withholds certain aspects of his Romanian conversations from her; body language is universal, after all. Okuno also plays up just how much the appearing (and disappearing) text bubbles have become a horror filmmaker’s new best friend.
Alongside cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, Okuno films Monroe’s solitary city strolls first like an ominous spin on Lost in Translation, then like an icier, contemporized version of Hitchcock-blonde horror (complete with a playful wink at an ersatz Hitchcock classic). The city is already vast and scary enough for Julia. That’s before she sees news stories about the Spider — a serial killer of women who has a penchant for decapitation — and the man across the street staring down at her every night from his dimmed apartment window. Could they be one and the same, or is Julia simply overcompensating her increased isolation with irrational fear?
As Julia suggests the neighbor is stalking her, Francis raises an intriguing point: Is that man uncomfortably staring at her or simply returning such a gaze directed at him? Perhaps the addictive behaviors Julia once channeled into smoking have surfaced as something more difficult to stop once it starts. Along with the stereotypically curious noise-making cat, that’s really as far as Watcher goes to question whether Julia’s concerns represent unchecked imagination. While prioritizing woozy discomfort over mounting dread works well for the first hour, Watcher begins to test patience after that. It also leeches out suspense by casting, in a pivotal role, a recognizable performer who almost always possesses ulterior movies.
Whether all of that patience is rewarded or punished by the final moments of Watcher is a toss-up. Where the climactic thematic moment of Men played so obviously as to be inane, the analog here feels so obscure as to be invisible. On the metaphorical hand, the last image hauntingly echoes both the weaponized language gap between spouses and a sobering snippet of dialogue from Julia’s new friend, Irina (Madalina Anea), about uncertainty being Julia’s best possible outcome. On the literal one … let’s say it feels like too much time passes even for such a pyrrhic victory. The ending will get you talking, so the view here is still good. However, Watcher would definitely benefit from a cleaner window into the borderland between imagined and irrefutable terror.