Watcher – Sundance London Film Festival 2022 – Film Review
Watcher amplifies paranoia to the highest degree in a tale of isolation as Julia is a stranger in a new city with a prowling serial killer as a backdrop. Watcher accentuates that feeling of ‘othering’ with inner fears battling against the realistic prospects of fears of being a murder victim whilst an ongoing investigation occurs.
Compelling from the outset with a creepy score, Watcher draws in the viewer with grainy footage and differing aspect ratios reminiscent of classic horror films. The film embraces horror tropes with its fascinating framing of the protagonist Julia, who is often alone exploring Bucharest, whilst her Romanian boyfriend is working. Not only are there the terrifying prospects of a language barrier to contend with, Julia is often baffled by conversations in Romanian occurring around her during social events, but there are the constant considerations and dread in effect for a woman in a home alone or walking down the street alone at night in high heels. As such, the importance of spoken and unspoken language, as a potential threat, is an important element underpinning Watcher.
Watcher may be a simple tale but its flirtation with terror is ultimately unsettling and emphasised by the casual use of Count Dracula figurines as director Chloe Okuno toys with the viewers. It is unfortunately a too frequent occurrence that the fears of a woman may be dismissed as irrational behaviour. As such, Julia’s stalker-like encounter with a creepy neighbour from an opposite apartment building is equally dismissed by the police and others, which permits an uncomfortable sentiment to pervade such scenes. Watcher yields its taut editing impressively in a tense build up leading to that question as to whether such scenarios are merely figments of Julia’s imagination, as seeing is believing after all. It is a scary but effective device which also disorientates and immerses the viewers in Romanian without subtitles who will therefore empathise with Julia’s plight.
Watcher is Okuno’s feature directorial debut which creates an emotionally nuanced perspective compared to Lost in Translation and other films depicting that out of water feeling in a new city. Whilst the film’s plotline creates that sense of déjà vu, the beguiling doe-eyed confusion of Julia played by Maika Monroe provides that distinguishing feature. Watcher therefore firmly cements itself within the cerebral horror film genre amongst films such as Hereditary.
Bucharest is a character in its own right, in the film, leading to a horror fuelled atmosphere with fog drenched scenes adding to that layer of unease. Okuno’s deliberate slow pacing of the scenes and off-centre framing ratchets up the terror. Her decision to film, for example, fragments of Julia’s body, as she walks up to street level from a subway and the focus on her feet, in key scenes, create foreshadowing and successfully replicate those anxiety inducing moments for any woman walking alone.
Okuno’s impactful direction and use of shadows plays with its audience further providing a sufficient number of unsettling visuals to warrant a questioning of the reality presented. All of which is assisted by an overall eerie sensation within the film without the ability to pinpoint the exact cause of its understated ability to get under the skin, which will please horror fans.
Watcher’s appeal lies in its ability to heighten the sensations of loneliness and neglect as an impressive exercise of terror which will resonate. Okuno’s Watcher is that simmering thriller depicting an everyday reality within a tense but beautifully austere cinematographic backdrop. Watcher is a watchable film and whilst its storyline may seem predictable for the majority of its runtime, this is elevated by Maika Monroe’s performance and the uncanny ability of Okuno to provide that seamless blend of tense relationship dynamics coupled with that terror of the outside world. Okuno has certainly delivered with Watcher and it will therefore be interesting to follow her next steps.