Directed by Chloe Okuno
Starring Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman, Burn Gorman
Released June 03, 2022, now playing in theaters
A young woman moves to a foreign country with her husband. They arrive together, a unit, but their daily lives quickly take divergent paths. He goes to his job at a marketing firm. She spends her days alternately languishing in their apartment and aimlessly wandering around the unfamiliar city she now calls home. She tries to learn the language but doesn’t seem to make much headway; she’s forced to rely on her husband to translate for her. If this scenario conjures up semi-glamorous images of expat ennui, think again.
Julia (an excellent Maika Monroe) has recently decided to reevaluate her life after giving up on becoming an actress. Francis (Karl Glusman) has been called to Romania for work, a position he’s qualified to fill since he speaks the language—he’s American, but his mother was Romanian. So the couple relocates to Bucharest, where the unoccupied Julia starts to feel isolated, paranoid, and, above all, watched.
Watcher seems to tip its hand early on. Nathan Halpern’s eerie score immediately signals that this film is a Horror Movie. The music, combined with the superb sound design—in which innocuous, small noises are amplified to startling effect—put the viewer on edge from the start. Julia and Francis arrive at their Bucharest flat, which features an enormous picture window in the living room. The couple starts making out on the couch, and the camera zooms out until the audience observes the couple from outside the window, perfectly framed. These gorgeous people, and their apartment with its giant windows, were made for watching. Watching a movie and spying on a neighbor are both inherently voyeuristic acts, and, for a brief moment, it appears as though Watcher will go the traditional route of aligning the audience perspective with that of the voyeur.
But Julia is sick of being looked at. She notices a shadowy figure in a window across the street (played by Burn Gorman), and she becomes obsessed with the idea that someone is watching her. Julia starts looking back, obsessively gazing out her window to catch the person she knows watches her day and night. When she learns of a serial killer roaming the city, Julia becomes even more convinced that someone with malevolent intentions is keeping his eye on her. Francis, while initially sympathetic, eventually becomes dismissive of his wife as she ever more desperately tries to persuade him that she’s being stalked. He finds Julia’s behavior increasingly out of line, and he starts to understand her surveillance of their neighbor as the problem. (With this strand of the plot, we get a hint of the good, old-fashioned gaslighting thriller; although I don’t think Julia ever truly doubts her own perceptions.)
Watcher, like its beautiful blonde protagonist, is stylish, lean, and tense. Writer/director Chloe Okuno, making her feature film debut, shows restraint in keeping the plot simple. What makes Watcher stand out is its sophisticated, flipped, feminist perspective. Watcher isn’t a gender-swapped voyeur tale, in which a woman spies on and becomes sexually obsessed with a man across the street. (For a satisfying film that fits this description, I’d recommend Michael Mohan’s The Voyeurs from last year.) But Okuno has, in fact, made a sort of flipped voyeur movie in which the female object of the male voyeur’s gaze has the audacity to gaze back. Watcher is less concerned with the act of looking and more interested in the particular feeling of being looked at, which naturally aligns the film’s perspective with feminist concerns about the pervasive objectification of women. To be a woman is to exist to be looked at, and Watcher seizes on and amplifies the everyday anxiety that this reality produces for most women.
Okuno paces the film just right, masterfully increasing the pressure until the critical moment. Just when you think that Watcher might not deliver the genre goods, the film gratifyingly punctures its own atmosphere of unrelenting tension with a few scenes of graphic violence that bring the movie home.
If you’re looking for an exquisitely crafted suspense film, I can’t recommend Watcher highly enough. Watcher marks Chloe Okuno as one to… well, watch.