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Stream It or Skip It?

i watched Watcher (now on VOD) the same morning rising-star actress Daisy Edgar-Jones was quoted in a GQ profile saying, “(Women) live with an awareness of threat that is so ingrained you don’t even clock it.” Interesting coincidence, since Watcher is a gaslighting thriller in which Maika Monroe believes she’s being stalked by a strange man, and nobody will give her the benefit of the doubt – even with a high-profile serial killer on the loose. Writer/director Chloe Okuno’s (V/H/S 94) feature debut weaves modern-feminist themes into the paranoia, like Hitchcock if he was considerably more enlightened, with provocative results.

WATCHER: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

The Gists: We never stray from Julia’s (Monroe) point-of-view: She’s new to Bucharest, having just moved there with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman), and when everyone else speaks in Romanian, there are never subtitles. We’re as in the dark conversationally as she is. Francis speaks the language and has to translate, but he’s inconsistent with the task. They moved from the US for his job. She was an actress, and now she says she’s “reevaluating.” The situation leaves her alone all day, listening to Romanian-language lessons, poking around an unfamiliar city where she’s the stranger – and wondering if and why the man in the window across the street and up a story is always staring at her. His is not a reassuring presence.

Also not reassuring are news reports detailing how four women have been found dead at the hands of a killer dubbed “the Spider.” One had her head cut off. Francis invites a work friend and his significant other over for dinner, and even though they all can speak English, they mostly don’t. Boy, aren’t they laughing and having a grand old time while Julia stares into the middle-distance and then decides to leave the table and take out the trash, and meets her neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea), and thank the gods she’s a warm, friendly face. There’s a sequence in which Julia goes to a movie and the watcher-man (who we now see is played by Burn Gorman) sits behind her and breathes, then follows her to the grocery store, where she finally loses him and runs home, spooked , upset.

Francis works late one night. Julia has a couple drinks with Irina. She goes home. She hits the couch. She looks at the curtains. Eerie drone music. She can’t not look. She peers out. A silhouette. She waves. to beat. Another beat. He waves back. It’s not a friendly wave, but to be fair, neither was hers. She and Francis call the cops, who take it somewhat seriously for a minute, but the swinging door of the benefit of the doubt exists in a house that’s not on level ground. One afternoon she’s out on the street and she spots him and follows him. Does he walk kind of funny? He definitely feeds the birds funny, stiffly throwing a handful of crumbs as he marches through a flock. Is this how a serial killer feeds the birds? Probably. Show of hands: Who thinks he’s the Spider?

Watchers (2022)
Photo: IFC Midnight/Courtesy Everett Collection

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Poor Maika Monroe – first she was followed in It Followsand now she’s being followed and watched in Watcher. However, beyond that superficial paranoia, Watcher often feels like a sister film to 2019’s The Assistantboth being disquieting #MeToo-era gaslighting stories.

Performance Worth Watching: The ever-underrated Monroe isn’t given a whole lot to say, but a hell of a lot to do. She carries this film with a nonverbal performance that conveys a complex psychological blend of curiosity and dread, and effectively stokes our empathy.

Memorable Dialogue: “I can only see him at night. Doesn’t mean that he’s not-”, and this is where Francis cuts Julia off.

Sex and Skin: A brief scene in strip club; PG-13 sexy sexing.

Our take: Watcher is a mesmerizing, understated, slow-burn thriller with long stars and poky elevators and a firm grip on both ends of the gradual taffy-pull of suspense. It’s like Nicolas Winding-Refn without the kitsch or occult fetishes or other such wonderfully arousing Eurotrashy nonsense. Monroe carefully modulates her performance, dialing it to an exquisite 49/51 paranoia/credibility balance – and Gorman, whose angular features and beady eyes put him firmly in central-casting categories such as Guys Who Can Play Nazis and Guys Who Can Play Psycho Killers but also Guys Who Can Play Sad Librarians, is a perfectly threatening foil.

Watcher is a genre film at heart, but neither is it empty-headed; call it a counterpunch to Hitchcock’s sexism. By that token, Okuno crafts a grandiose metaphor for the male gaze, but never makes the film feel like a heavy-handed sermon about the power of a morally corrupt patriarchal society. The Julia character simply exists in an all-too-recognizable world where women feel constantly under threat, and yet their emotions and perspectives are devalued and discounted. This is all acutely rendered and vital context within the parameters of a conventional thriller – vital enough that we’ll forgive it for its variations on It Was Just a Dream, Only a Cat and Walking Slowly Through the House scenes. Here in the age of enlightened horror-thrillers, we watch films like this and expect to categorize them via either their “elevated” addressing of social or political themes, or their wild twists. Smartly conceived, directed and paced, Watcher deftly juggles both. And ingeniously, the twist here is, it’s really not a twist at all.

Our Call: STREAMIT. Okuno is a proficient filmmaker who makes sure Watcher is a winner. While you’re at it, be sure and set a Google alert for news of her next movie.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work from him at johnserbaatlarge.com.

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