REVIEW: Watcher [2022]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 91 minutes
    Release Date: June 3rd, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Midnight
    Director(s): Chloe Okuno
    Writer(s): Chloe Okuno / Zack Ford (previous screenplay)

You’re suspiciously quiet.

Despite being half said in jest as a means of disarming Julia’s (Maika Monroe) fear, Irina’s (Madalina Anea) words are no less chilling. Her response to the former’s belief that someone is following her is to admit how never learning the truth may prove better than knowing. Better to “live with the uncertainty” than “find yourself bleeding out with ‘I told you so.’ caught on your lips.” That is the unfortunate reality illustrated by writer/director Chloe Okuno‘s feature debut Watcher (adapted from Zack Ford‘s original script and ultimately moved from New York City to Romania once the Balkan nation was picked as their shooting location). This psychological suspense thriller centers an experience uniquely understood by women—one that’s too often dismissed as paranoia by the privilege of men.

Julia is a fish-out-of-water in Bucharest. She’s moved there with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) after he earned a promotion at his marketing firm. He knows the language thanks to a Romanian mother and thus serves as Julia’s translator when necessary. While he’s at work, however, she’s left fending for herself whenever she decides to leave the safety of their new apartment. It’s not impossible with recorded lessons teaching basic phrases to engage with grocery clerks and movie theater attendants, but it’s hardly comfortable. It’s only natural too to find herself easily spooked by strangers when they talk or yell in response to her actions. Unfortunately for Julia, she’s facing more than mere immigrant anxieties. She’s facing a stalker who gazes through her window from across the street.

Or is it just a coincidence? She’s technically looking at him too, right? And who’s to say he isn’t looking at something else when all she’s working with is a silhouette? That’s what Francis thinks anyway. And what the police officer she calls after an unknown man follows her around the supermarket aisles. Neighbors will run into each other, after all. Just because a serial murderer is running rampant, killing young women her age, doesn’t mean this man is a threat regardless of whether he is actually stalking her. It should give them all pause, though. The fact that she could be in the crosshairs of unchecked violence should make Francis worried. Why not err on the side of caution? Being embarrassed about a misunderstanding isn’t that bad.

If human beings can be relied upon for anything, however, it’s confidently playing the odds. Especially men. What’s crazier? That the man just happens to be on a similar schedule as Julia or that he’s a homicidal maniac? It doesn’t matter that the stakes are higher than losing a few hundred dollars, the odds are too low not to laugh. Julia laughs at first too. Why not? One or two or three times is a coincidence. She does stop, though, when things escalate. She does everything she can to trick herself into thinking she’s making it all up only to discover her worst fears are true. And all the while Francis worries more about his job, staying out late with clients and treating Julia like each day’s prize.

It’s all carefully manipulated so that we can never know whose side to choose until it’s too late. We should pick Julia for no other reason than she has the most to lose and yet Okuno expertly sprinkles in explanations that chip away at her defense. We shouldn’t care either way considering external truth doesn’t negate the internal truth she’s experiencing and yet we’re conditioned to believe physical trumps emotional anyway. People love to smile and say, “Paranoia doesn’t mean it’s not real.” The second someone needs them to believe those sentiments in earnest, however, they run away so as not to look foolish. And then when something does happen, they tell themselves there was no way to know. The victim becomes silenced even in death.

Monroe is fantastic in this role. Her Julia is juggling her own skepticism with that gut feeling telling her something is wrong. She’s trying to be the “good wife.” Trying to not rock the boat and give Francis more trouble than being the new guy already provides. But, at a certain point, she needs some sort of release to not go insane. Prove she’s wrong. Prove that the man following her isn’t the man who lives across the street. Prove that it’s all a coincidence. Don’t simply pretend as though comforting words will erase the dread boiling over inside her. And definitely don’t start playing the victim by saying her fear is an inconvenience to you. Okuno might be writing fiction, but this terror is very, very real.

And we sense it too. The scene where Julia is being stalked from the movies to the store is tensely blocked in a way that shrouds his face from sight. And since anyone who knows Burn Gorman knows it’s him, revealing his face by the end of that sequence gives nothing away. Why? Because it doesn’t matter who he is. We still don’t know if Gorman is also the man in the window. We still don’t know if he’s the killer known as “The Spider.” Maybe he is just a neighbor. Maybe those three men are all different. Maybe they’re all the same. Suspense is born from the not knowing and it rises as the details of the worst possible outcome grow more sadistic because fear protects us.

Our reaction to it is what lets us down. We question ourselves. We question others. We attempt to dissolve that fear by deflecting it away without fully confronting its origins. Society tells us it’s a weakness and predators feed upon that indoctrinated reality to hide in plain sight. Because Julia wasn’t supposed to look back. Had she not been a foreigner with already heightened senses, maybe she wouldn’t have. It’s why bringing an outsider in for a “fresh look” is crucial to so many aspects of our civilization. They can see that which we’ve numb ourselves to ignore. The question is whether we’re willing to listen and willing to change. Because it’s easy to scoff. Better to laugh than be laughed at. Until you’re the one in trouble.

[1] Maika Monroe as ‘Julia’ in Chloe Okuno’s WATCHER. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.
[2] Maika Monroe as ‘Julia’ and Karl Glusman as “Francis” in Chloe Okuno’s WATCHER. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.
[3] Maika Monroe as ‘Julia’ in Chloe Okuno’s WATCHER. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.

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