[Sundance 2022 Review] ‘Watcher’: A modern take on Old Hollywood thrillers

Moving to a place where you don’t speak the language or know the culture can be daunting as well as frustrating. However, the main character in Chloe Okuno‘s sole directorial debut, Watcher, has a more pressing issue to contend with. The American transplant is convinced someone is stalking her.

Julia (Maika Monroe) has recently moved to Bucharest, Romania with her fiancé, Francis (Karl Glusman). As Francis looks to impress the bosses at his new job, Julia succumbs to the unsettling silence of their home and the unfamiliarity of the city. News of a local murder puts Julia on edge even further; she thinks someone is now after her. More specifically, a man (Burn Gorman) she’s seen around town wherever she goes. Julia soon suspects he’s the same person watching her from an adjacent apartment.

Watcher wastes little time story-wise. From the first second, it is abundantly clear Julia is uneasy. What causes that source of discomfort seems larger than an international move. Regardless, Okuno and co-writer Zack Ford‘s script focuses on the here and now rather than whatever Julia’s life was back in America. This prevents the film from straying, but it also begs questions about Julia and Francis. In fact, not much about any of the characters’ histories is provided than whatever is deemed necessary to further the dominant plot.

Watcher is admittedly guilty of using a few too many prevalent tropes — the shady neighbor, the absolutely unhelpful police, and the incredulous significant other — but they do no harm in the long run. This ends up being a blessing when it comes to figuring out what is really going on. Is the film looking to subvert these old genre chestnuts, or is Okuno playing things straight? When one of these devices is put to use, you are essentially asked to second-guess your initial theories and persistent inklings. This helps put the audience in Julia’s shoes as she starts to doubt herself and the situation at hand.

Maika Monroe conveys Julia’s fears and frustrations with more care than required in these sorts of thrillers. She externalizes her vulnerability and chagrin without settling into a damsel-in-distress role. Karl Glusman plays the concerned, soon-to-be spouse without the needless animosity of other men put in the same position. Francis indeed slips up from time to time, but there’s no mistaking how much he still cares about Julia. Meanwhile, Burn Gorman adds yet another creepy character to his résumé. His incredibly sustained amount of pensiveness is enough to rattle anyone, so it’s no wonder Julia accuses him of being her stalker.

Watcher is a slow burn that is highly reminiscent of Old Hollywood, cat-and-mouse thrillers. The times are modern and the venue is a far throw from the usual parts seen in those films, but Okuno pays great tribute to vintage, imperiled women stories in more ways than one. She is certainly someone to keep an eye out for in the genre’s future.

Watcher premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022.

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