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For her feature debut, Watcher, director Chloe Okuno has taken the well-worn genre of the stalker flick and given it a subtle jolt of freshness, making it less about the violence, which is more suggested than seen, than about the act of watching itself.
The result is a thriller whose temperature is on soft boil for most of its running time, until Okuno turns up the gas in the last few minutes for a convincingly extreme finale. In a genre movie climate marked by cheap thrills and easy scares — whatever gets us not to click on something else — it’s nice to see a film that sustains a strong ambiance of dread simply via someone looking out the window and shopping for groceries.
Granted, Watcher is set in present-day Bucharest, which is made to look scarier than most cities (a Dracula souvenir reminds us of Romania’s horror bona fides). But the real source of fear is the loneliness and isolation of an expat, Julie (Maika Monroe), who’s followed her boyfriend Francis (Karl Glusman) overseas for his new job.
With nothing to do but sit around their tasteful, slightly spooky if centrally located apartment — we learn that Julie used to be an actress; she seems to have no new career plans — our heroine begins to let her mind wander, especially when she sees a man repeatedly staring at her from a window across the street. Faster than you can pronounce voyeur, Julie is convinced the man is a stalker, her suspicions confirmed when he follows her one day into a supermarket. The fact that there’s a serial killer on the loose in town, and one who preys on young women, only adds to her anxiety.
At this point, most films would amp up the action by switching to either race-against-the-clock mode or torture-porn mode. But Okuno and screenwriter Zack Ford try another tactic, which is to keep things as real and ambiguous as possible, putting us in Julie’s shoes as we see what she sees and suspects what she suspects. We all like to concoct movies in our heads, and like the best point-of-view thrillers, Watcher makes that practice its main occupation: We’re watching someone watching being watched.
Rather than contradicting Julie at first, Francis tries his best to accommodate her. He asks the cops to intervene and they eventually bring Julie face to face with her stalker (Burn Gorman, arguably one of the creepiest looking actors alive). The air has been cleared, after which we begin to wonder whether this is all in Julie’s mind because she’s bored to death — a sentiment Francis begins to voice out loud.
There’s a nice undercurrent in Watcher that explores the listlessness of being an expat partner, sort of like in Lost in Translation but with the Bill Murray character replaced by a potential psychopath. The film doesn’t completely skirt stereotypes about its setting — the one neighbor Julie befriends is a stripper who works in a club that screams of post-communist despair — but it does rather accurately portray the solitude of moving abroad and not being able to fit in or communicate with others.
Divulging any more story at this point will ruin it, so let’s just say that Okuno does a good job keeping us in the dark and contemplating Julie’s sanity until her movie’s nail-biter of a finale, which is short, scary and delivers the gore we watchers have been waiting for. It’s an ending that feels earned because of the slow and steady buildup, and because of Monroe’s ability to constantly look terrified without batting an eyelid — something she already proved in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows.
For a first feature, Watcher is skillfully and economically realized, making the most out of very little: one apartment, two windows, a few streets, a lost cat. Okuno and DP Benjamin Kirk Nielsen stage each sequence for maximum impact, even if there’s not much happening at times beyond someone looking outside. But they manage to make us look as well, waiting for things to go bad and for our promises to be fulfilled.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Lost City, Image Nation Abu Dhabi
Cast: Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman, Burn Gorman, Ciubuciu Bogdan Alexandru
Director: Chloe Okuno
Screenwriter: Zack Ford
Producers: Roy Lee, Steven Schnedier, Derek Dauchy, John Finemore, Aaron Kaplan Mason Novick, Sean Perrone
Executive producer: Gabi Anal, James Hoppe, Stuart Manashil, Rami Yasin
Director of photography: Benjamin Kirk Nielsen
Production designer: Nora Dumitrescu
Editor: Michael Block
Composer: Nathan Halpern
Sales: Cinetic Media
In English, Romanian
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