Watcher (2022) Movie Review

Watcher premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is competing in its U.S. Dramatic competition.

Chloe Okuno’s feature debut Watcher is a thriller in the Rear Window tradition. Americans Julia (Maika Monroe) and Francis (Karl Glusman) move to Bucharest after Francis receives a promotion. Julia does not have a job here and does not speak Romanian, two facts which isolate her in her new environment, leaving her on edge as she goes about her days largely alone. And it does not help that she swears a person in the neighboring building is watching her day-in, day-out. Or that he may have followed her to the movies and the supermarket, just watching her. Or that there is also a serial killer decapitating women in the local area.

Watcher is, true its title, a film about gazing. So central to the film medium that Laura Mulvey’s treatment of “the gaze” has become one of the most well-known theories in film studies, gazing is an inherently dynamic and fruitful arena for cinema to delve into. Given that the nature of film itself requires a gaze—the gaze of the camera—film’s which reflexively approach the nature of looking and “to-be-looked-at-ness” are provided a different energy than other films.

Okuno’s film investigates an intriguing question: what if the person you think is watching you believes that you are the one watching them? The issue, however, is that the execution of this idea leaves little room for doubt. The way the plot is framed, the movie can’t really afford to buy into this premise. Francis, ever the mild-mannered yet absent and distrusting boyfriend, never fully believes Julia’s suspicions, and he grows over time to outright reject her fears. It is clear from the start that we are not on Francis’ side. The possibility that this is all a misunderstanding is a narrative improbability, as our sympathies remain firmly with Julia.

Because of this, the mystery of the plot has nowhere to go. The only narrative eventuality is that her suspicions will be confirmed, which leaves little room for mystery or prolonged tension in what is a patient, slow-burn film. As a result, the story runs out of runway much faster than the pace of the film can account for, leaving us with a long middle act whose tension deflates over time.

On the flip side, Watcher is expertly shot as we follow Julia around Bucharest. Okuno shows skill in knowing where the camera ought to be placed in any given shot to conjure an atmosphere of isolation and discomfort. This film is an aesthetic departure from her 2014 short “Slut,” which adopted a ’70s-era slasher look. Both “Slut” and Watcher prove Okuno’s abilities as a horror-thriller director (one could also mention her addition to V/H/S/94 last year — hail Ratma!). I remain excited for what she will make next.

Unfortunately, Watcher struggles to do two things at once. It wants to succeed as both a slow-burn thriller meditating on the plurality of the cinematic gaze and a tense mystery which keeps you guessing as to what is true. The two cannot find a happy medium.

Watcher: C+

As always, thanks for reading!

—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)

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