Sundance Review: “Watcher” (2022)

A young couple moves into a new apartment in Bucharest, Romania just as news of a serial killer sweeps across the city. That’s the surface level setup for director and co-writer Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher”. But underneath its genre exterior is a clever and shrewdly made exploration of fear, isolation, and a woman’s need to be heard and believed. Those are the things Okuno is most interested in bringing to light.

This psychological slow-burn stars Maika Monroe as Julia, a former actress who leaves New York City and follows her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) to Bucharest following his recent job promotion. While she puts on a good show, you can’t help but sense Julia’s anxiety as she tries to adjust to her new surroundings. It’s a piece of cake for Francis who knows the language and plugs right in at work. But it’s harder for Julia, who doesn’t know anyone in Bucharest and doesn’t speak Romanian.

While Francis works long hours at his new job, Julia spends most of her time alone. She tries getting out and exploring the city. But without fail, the language barrier always comes into play. She can’t talk with her loud and abrasive landlady. She can’t understand the television reports of a suspected serial killer on the loose. Even standing in a group with Francis and his Romanian-speaking colleagues leaves her feeling like an outsider.

Among Okuno’s many good choices was the decision not to use subtitles. Romanian is spoken a lot in the film, and every word of it is subtitle-free. It’s a smart move that goes hand-in-hand with Okuno’s desire to put us in Julia’s headspace; to enable us to feel what she feels. For Okuno, the film’s visual language is essential to representing Julia’s state of mind. There are some clever tricks with the lensing and framing that create vast, seemingly empty spaces that emphasize Julia’s growing feelings of isolation. There are also interesting uses of color to convey mood and an increasing sense of dread.

The more time Julia spends alone, the more she withdraws. Fear and paranoia set in after she begins noticing a man from the apartment building across the street watching her from his fifth floor window. All she can see is a silhouette, but she’s soon convinced her watcher is the same man as the one who has been creepily following her around town (played by the always captivating Burn Gorman). Her fears are exacerbated after a woman is found murdered in their neighborhood – a death that is later attributed to the serial killer known as “The Spider”. A shaken Julia shares her suspicions with Francis who quickly brushes it off as “stress”.

Another of Okuno and her co-writer Zack Ford’s good choices was the decision not to paint Francis as the proverbial ‘bad guy’. In fact he’s quite the opposite. He genuinely loves and cares for Julia. At the same time, you want to hurl your shoe at the screen each time he attempts to explain away her unease. And he doesn’t even know he’s doing it. You could say he’s oblivious to his own condescension.

But Julia wants answers and before long she becomes the watcher, determined to connect the man stalking her to the shadowy figure in the window. This is where inspirations like Hitchcock, Polanski, and Lynch really come into focus. Yet even as the movie begins playing more with genre in the second half, it keeps us firmly planted in Julia’s head. It’s a tricky balance which works in large part thanks to Monroe who offers the right mix of vulnerability and fortitude.

“Watcher” is an eye-opening and artful directorial debut for Chloe Okuno who uses her deceptively simple premise to challenge those quick to doubt and dismiss female victims. Shot on location in Bucharest, the film uses the city’s beauty as both inviting and terrifying. DP Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, production designer Nora Dumitrescu, and composer Nathan Halpern all work in unison to ensure that we feel the same loneliness and dread as Julia. Ultimately that’s the key. Okuno wants her audience to enjoy the thriller genre dressing. But it’s the moody reflective psychodrama she wants us to sink our teeth into.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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