Director: Chloe Okuno
Stars: Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman, Burn Gorman
A one-time actress ‘re-evaluating’ her options, Julia (Maika Monroe) follows her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) to Bucharest, Romania, where they take up a spacious, high-ceilinged apartment that is conspicuously devoid of curtains. The wall-wide windows look out on opposing high-rise blocks. More insidiously, those anonymous concrete and glass cliff-faces look back on them. From one window, Julia spies a half-obscured man (Burn Gorman) who always seems to be looking down on her. Stoic, transfixed but unrelenting. She mainly sees him at night when the light gives her the advantage, but soon her daytimes are filled with a similar paranoia. News of grisly murders in the area do little to quell her escalating fear.
With it’s rainy Euro setting and an emphasis on the stalk in ‘stalk ‘n’ slash’, Chloe Okuno’s Watcher feels like a throwback to the flush of ’70s giallo pictures coming out of Italy, or the proto-slashers of the regional American circuit. Here such sensibilities are given a dash of modern, post-#MeToo hyper-awareness verging on hypochondria. Being a stranger in a strange land, Julia’s sense of isolation doesn’t help her, and this in turn prickles the sense of pandemic-era anxiety intrinsic to a bulk of Watcher‘s success.
A lot of the power here comes from this aforementioned sense of isolation. And while Julia is free to roam the city at will (a right she exercises), her outsider status renders her lonesome much of the time, especially as Francis commits more and more time to his work.
The majority of us felt hit by some form is dislocation from society during the pandemic, and many of us self-isolated or quarantined ourselves either fearing or recovering from symptoms. Many of us lost jobs, and suddenly found our spheres limited, our routines disappeared. Julia kindles a sense of that prolonged, jailed fatigue, while Gorman’s expressionless voyeur is printable with all sorts of potentia, including a manifestation of the virus itself.
Julia is all too aware that her experiences (including a close encounter in a supermarket) are thin and subjective, yet her panic persists, confounded by her initially-supportive husband’s diminishing sense of empathy. The prevalence of looking, of watching may make the Hitchcock classic Rear Window seem like the obvious point of reference, but as key events occur outside of her experience, and a sense of conspiracy is furthered, Rosemary’s Baby might be the more applicable touchstone. While similar themes – and even scenes – underpin Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic-era thriller Kimi from earlier this year. That film also featured a figure watching from an elevated window, a dynamic of seedy dominance that heightened the sense of pressure in the margins of the film.
The ever-dependable Monroe has been in a similar situation before of course, star of last decade’s horror masterpiece It Follows. Yet Julia is a discernibly different character to that film’s Jay. Monroe recalibrates an admittedly similar role, bringing both increased boldness and a feeling of lived-in sadness. Factor in The Guest also and she has a natural gift for inhabiting outsiders.
Julia has voyeuristic tendencies of her own. A neighbour (a sadly underused Madalina Anea) catches her eavesdropping on an intimate moment in the building’s stairwell and, later, when Julia spies her nosy neighbour out in the world, she can’t help but follow him, tracking his movements across the city like a PI. We in the audience are asked to entertain the question, just who is the ‘watcher’ here? Is it Julia? And, inevitably, is it us?
Okuno – fresh off of attention-grabbing work for V/H/S/94 – often places her lead in the middle-distance, isolating her in an ocean of space that leaves her looking dwarfed and abandoned. Nathan Halpern’s score, meanwhile, enhances this sense of forlorn loneliness felt by a woman surrounded, yet often invisible.
The final beats, somewhat disappointedly, adhere to a more generic pattern in order to close off the narrative neatly. Given Okuno’s exemplary work playing with our suspicions, something a little more elusive or ambiguous might’ve served her better.
Until this occurs Watcher plays simply – and effectively – as a tale of how people are sometimes inexplicably drawn to one another. Not out of love or friendship, but out of a mutual fascination, however morbid the fixation. Something irrepressible that can’t help but get it’s hooks into you, which is a neat way of describing Kuono’s compelling chiller.