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Saturday, January 22, 2022

[Sundance Review] ‘Watcher’ Is an Atmospheric and Stylish Paranoid Thriller!

Director Chloe Okuno (“SLUT”, V/H/S/94’s “Storm Drain”) channels the likes of Roman Polanski and Alfred Hitchcock for her throwback style feature debut. Watcher preys on the paranoid vulnerability of an isolated woman struggling to adapt to a new country, creating a stylish and atmospheric thriller centered around voyeuristic paranoia and claustrophobia.

American Julia (Maika Monroe) uproots her life to accompany her half-Romanian husband Francis (Karl Glusman) to Bucharest for his high-pressure job. The demanding work hours leave Julia almost entirely on her own to adjust to a new country and culture, and it’s made even harder by the language barrier. Alone all day and increasingly at night, Julia stares out the window and notices an eerie face staring back. That mild feeling of being watched gets transformed into full-blown paranoia with the discovery that a killer named Spider has been stalking and decapitating women in the area. But is someone following Julia, or is it a byproduct of loneliness and culture shock?

 Okuno, who co-wrote the script with Zack Ford, keeps it narratively simple. The familiar hallmarks and tropes of this particular subgenre are all present. The husband supports his wife’s safety concerns for all of two minutes before dismissing her as paranoid and attention-seeking. The increasingly hostile neighbors who think the American is trouble, save for one sexy female neighbor that seems doomed for danger. The outright dismissal by police, even as a serial killer stalks the streets. Gaslighting, voyeurism, and more pump through Watcher’s familiar veins.

Okuno’s ability to create eerie unease from an uncomplicated premise impresses. The impeccable sound design and increasingly claustrophobic score by Nathan Halpern contribute so much to the unsettling atmosphere. Benjamin Kirk Nielsen’s cinematography works in perfect harmony with Nora Dumitrescu’s production design to play up those shadowy corners for Spider, or Julia’s fragile psyche, to lurk. The way Okuno stages it all to ensure that Julia’s potential stalker is always obscured and just out of sight. The ingenious move to not subtitle all Romanian dialogue to put us in Julia’s shoes, to leave us as isolated as she is. It’s Okuno’s direction and the moving parts she’s assembled that sell the effectiveness of this otherwise straightforward thriller.

The other crucial component to making Watcher work, of course, is Monroe’s performance. There’s not much on the page in terms of characterization, so it’s up to Monroe to keep us invested in Julia’s plight. She quickly provides rooting interest with the right balance of vulnerability and savvy smarts. A supporting part by Burn Gorman livens up the back half as a neighbor convinced Julia is stalking him, imbuing the perfect blend of shy friendliness, concern, and creepy ambiguity.

Watcher favors a slow, steady build without much action or thrilling sequences. Instead, Okuno opts to capture the psychological unraveling of her heroine in intimate, stylish fashion. Paranoia and claustrophobia become far more critical than a body count. It’s a measured, moody psychodrama that allows Okuno to wear her influences on her sleeves, making them her own, until one bloody and satisfying finale.


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