“A sporadically interesting and engaging movie that sets itself up with skill, but never excels.”
by Ken Bakely
There’s something to be said about how Chloe Okuno’s Watcher lets itself build up slowly and quietly. It remains cloistered in the mind of its protagonist, showing how the world around her grows darker and more threatening while no one around her notices. But though the movie is good at establishing an ominous mood, it lacks a palpable substance and payoff that could make it feel complete. The plot is tentative, with many opportunities to build on and make something interesting, but often on the precipice of something more involving and interesting than what it provides: Okuno’s script follows Julia (Maika Monroe), an American who has just moved to Bucharest with her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman). She doesn’t speak fluent Romanian yet, and so can’t find a job or connect with people; she thus spends the day alone, in their apartment with occasional excursions outside. But in the short time she’s been there, something strange has started to happen – she’s convinced that a man (Burn Gorman) has begun to stalk her. He’s looking through the window, he’s in a movie theater with her, he’s following her around the grocery store, always silent yet always there. Francis dismisses it as paranoia and anxiety from being in new surroundings, and Julia can’t communicate with most of her neighbors to make her case, not that they would be predisposed to believing her, either. But with the news that there’s a serial killer on the loose, targeting young women in their neighborhood, her fears only grow as strange events around her grow increasingly frequent and threatening.
In the lead role, Monroe delivers a capable and convincing performance. Because so much of what happens in the buildup is an attempt to convey the growing panic that sets in as Julia interrogates her surroundings – enough for it to be alarming, yet sufficiently distant for no one else to see it – it’s necessarily a lot of internal work, and Monroe understands this. Okuno is a capable director of actors, in addition to building the film’s grim aesthetic. Watcher always operates at a certain studious, efficient baseline. But that can’t be all that a movie has, and this one struggles to develop a truly effective spirit or drive. There are chances it just doesn’t take. Consider the plot, which is rather generic in substance and trajectory; it’s always worth remembering that a story never needs to reinvent the wheel to work, but it does need to seem invested in where it’s going. It has to believe in itself. Watcher doesn’t really give the impression it does. Once we find out where things are going, there’s something unpleasantly obligatory about how it proceeds on from there. Everything plays about the same, whether the movie is laying the groundwork of Julia examining her surroundings, or bombarding us with a sudden revelation.
After some stylized and moody table-setting, Watcher falls into a regrettable sameness that lingers for the remainder of the runtime. It’s a sporadically interesting and engaging movie that sets itself up with skill, but never excels. There’s a lot of worldbuilding, yet very little spontaneity or thrill within it. As a result, even the otherwise climactic finale underwhelms: as a movie told so intimately from the protagonist’s perspective – and so closely focused on how she’s the only one who can see what’s happening right in front of her – it’s unable to deliver on the tension or surprises it wants to, since there’s not much that it hasn’t already revealed. Watcher wants us to identify with this character, understanding the frustration and dread she experiences in her position, and that’s certainly something that the movie accomplishes, thanks in large part to Monroe’s strong performance. There are moments and scenes here that really work. And yet, none of its highlights are able to overcome the more fundamental problem that keeps the film from creaking along its thin foundation, unable to fully stand out on its own.