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‘Watcher’ Review: Maika Monroe Is Wasted on an Ineffectual Psycho-Drama

Sundance: Chloe Okuno's debut feature settles for cheap thrills in its story of an American woman being stalked by a killer in Bucharest.

Maika Monroe appears in Watcher by Chloe Okuno, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Watcher”

Sundance

Chloe Okuno could have struck gold when production of “Watcher” was relocated from New York to Bucharest, Romania. The Eastern European city’s mix of bleak, brutalist architecture and baroque government buildings only add to the isolation that the film’s protagonist, Julia (Maika Monroe), feels as she tags along when her half-Romanian husband is transferred there for work. Add to that a stark language barrier and a neighbor who may or may not be spying on her from across the street, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a taut paranoid thriller. When writing the script along with Zack Ford, Okuno was inspired by filmmakers like Roman Polanski and Sofia Coppola, both masters at depicting what it’s like to be an outsider in a foreign place. But instead of leaning into the ambiguous tensions and uncanny experiences, “Watcher” fails to live up to its inspirations, ending up a heavy-handed, predictable trip through genre tropes with a rather lifeless cast at its core. “Watcher” spells out every plot point to a tee, when we wish it would slowly, playfully tug at the threads of our anxieties.

The film is centered around Julia’s days spent alone in the city while her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) is at work, either in her luxurious apartment or wandering through Bucharest’s winding streets. The drabness of the city is beautifully depicted in a sort of half-light that makes it feel slightly out of time, and Julia floats through her environment in a kind of dazed awareness, curious about what surrounds her but distracted by a nagging feeling of being followed. “The Spider,” a serial killer who slashes women’s throats to the point of beheading, is also on the loose, in case Julia needed any more reason to feel stressed out. Monroe, who’s at her best when she’s able to let loose in fits of fear and panic, gives a much more reserved performance here than in “It Follows” (a fitting alternate title for this film, as it turns out). She’s given only a few moments to release some of her pent-up energy, which she does with a captivating display of mania that could have been better distributed throughout the film.

The press notes state that Okuno’s goal in making the film was to capture “a kind of constant, uncomfortable dread that accompanies  many women throughout their lives.” This feeling is not to be scoffed at, as it is when Julia shares her fears with Francis. While he’s trying to portray an oblivious and unfeeling husband, Glusman’s performance feels phoned-in and unconvincing. Francis is worried about his wife but doesn’t believe her, more concerned with impressing his local friends and colleagues than attending to her uneasiness. His lack of distress over his wife’s wellbeing just feels cruel, and while there are hints that their marriage isn’t a happy one, this plot point goes largely unexplored. Luckily, Julia finds an ally in the woman next door, the mysterious Irina (Mădălina Anea), who invites her over for a drink and reveals that she keeps a gun in her coffee table drawer, in case her melodramatic boyfriend ever gets out of hand. The Chekhovian weapon feels more obvious than ominous.

There are a handful of convenient plot devices that inelegantly take away from any real potential for tension throughout the film. Halfway through, we find out that there are curtains on Julia’s apartment windows, and we wonder why she’s never closed them if she’s so averse to being observed. As Julia’s fears continue to be ignored, we may question if she’s enjoying the attention from this stranger, who’s perhaps serving as a substitute for her rather absent husband. She first feels him following her as she wanders into the middle of a matinee screening of “Charade,” then to the grocery store where she almost buys cigarettes — she’d given up smoking a few months ago, but when she ultimately relents and buys a pack, it serves as a great way to show signs of stress on screen. She eventually ends up following him in return, to the point where he shows up at her apartment with a police officer asking her to stop. The stranger’s face is revealed at this point, and his lack of eye contact and disturbingly flat features place him squarely in the serial killer camp.

Okuno also cites Kieślowski as an influence, and his brilliant “A Short Film About Love,” with clever nods to “Rear Window,” conveys the vague relationship between a peeping tom and his subject, the beautiful woman across the street who eventually comes to enjoy being watched. Of course, we can’t fault Okuno for a debut feature that doesn’t quite reach the level of Kieślowski or Hitchcock, but we can hope for something that tries to interrogate these kinds of questions about the watcher and their subject with a little more finesse.

It’s hard not to enjoy the references Okuno makes to films like “Charade,” with its extended underground metro sequences, “The Tenant,” with Julia’s overly sensitive landlord, and “Lost in Translation,” with its beautiful woman doing nothing in a new city. One only wishes it would invest more in its own story, playing up the surreal and unnameable feeling of being alone, and the ever-present, very feminine feeling of being observed. “Watcher” drags through most of its runtime, to the point where the overblown climax at the film’s end is almost welcome. Its definitive answer to the question at the film’s center, however, puts a firm “I told you so” on the preceding action, answering all our questions, and leaving us with little to think about at its end.

Grade: C+

“Watcher” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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