As a serial killer stalks the city, Julia – a young actress who just moved to town with her boyfriend notices a mysterious stranger watching her from across the street.
Is Julia being paranoid or is she simply feeling out of place? Having moved to Bucharest with her husband – a native of the country who’s landed a job with great potential- she’s had a hard time settling in. Struggling with the language, unemployed and without any friends, she has far too much time on her hands, time to turn small matters over and over in her mind until the mundane becomes threatening. The fact that a serial killer is on the loose certainly isn’t helping her feel safe and neither is the fact that she can’t shake the feeling she’s being followed by the creepy guy who lives across the street, the one who has a bad habit of looking in her window. Surely, the ever-mounting feeling of dread is all in her head…isn’t it?
Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher” relies on the viewer’s previous knowledge of “women-in-peril” films. All of the tropes are present in this slickly produced thriller, yet they’re executed with a degree of menace and realism that winds up gripping you despite their familiarity. Yes, the gas-lighting husband (Karl Glusman) is present as are disbelieving police officers and a red herring or two.
Yet, the sense of dread Okuno creates and builds upon gets under your skin. Bucharest’s buildings loom over and threaten to crush our heroine at any point, while the director uses tighter and tighter shots on Julia, until we too feel her sense of entrapment. The perpetual gloom that hangs over the city proves oppressive as well, suggesting she’s wandering about in a nightmare. Composer Nathan Helpern’s subtle, ominous score contributes greatly to the genuine sense of unease.
As Julia, Maika Monroe does a masterful job portraying this woman who slowly comes apart at the seams. On her heels throughout, her sense of self methodically chipped away at, the actress by small degrees effectively displays how her character’s sense of fear – rational or not – overtakes her. Equally effective is Burn Gorman as her “maybe he is, maybe he isn’t” stalker Weber, the actor achieving a sense of awkwardness to the character that’s as poignant as it is menacing. Like Julia, he too is lonely and in need of a sense of belonging.
This duality makes for some intriguing moments as the question of who’s watching who comes to the fore in the film’s second act. As Julia becomes more aggressive in rooting out Weber’s true intentions, the tables turn and she is seen as the harasser and he the victim. It’s an interesting and plausible twist that shifts the viewer’s allegiance and has us questioning our heroine’s sanity and intentions.
So much of “Watcher” is so well done that it proves excruciatingly frustrating to witness its conclusion. Logical and smart until its final scene, I was in disbelief as I watched the preposterous events play out. If I were to adhere to the gymnastics’ metaphor of whether or not Okuno and her crew stuck the landing (ending), let’s just say the film’s legs shatter beneath it. How the director, who also penned the screenplay, thought these circumstances would fly is beyond me. That so many of my expectations had been exceeded, makes “Watcher’s” lazy ending all the more exasperating, a misstep that mars what is otherwise an exceptional, slow-burn shocker.