A woman-in-danger thriller set in a foreign locale? This is catnip!
In Watcher, Maika Monroe plays Julia, an American who has recently moved to Bucharest, Romania with her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman). For him, this is a homecoming; for her it’s an opportunity to reflect on her goals after retiring from acting. As Francis sets out to climb the corporate ladder at a marketing job that requires him to be out of the house for long stretches, Julia plays tourist and acclimatizes, but she’s isolated, lonely and has no social support network.
The film expertly capitalizes on the isolation that accompanies moving to a new country and struggling with the language. Julia dedicates herself to learning Romanian while sitting in cafes and on her walks through museums, but there are repeated instances – both mundane and dangerous – where she’s at a disadvantage because she can’t communicate effectively. In one instance she comes home to discover the front door of the apartment ajar and it’s not until the landlady and a handyman depart that it’s clear a light was being replaced. A similar issue occurs later when someone frantically begins pounding on the front door: it’s a woman looking for her cat, but Julia needs her sex worker neighbour Irina to translate.
Co-writer & director Chloe Okuno cites as inspiration the works of David Fincher, Sophia Coppola and Roman Polanski and, like those auteurs, Watcher uses mood and atmosphere to convey an underlying hint of malice. Bucharest is both gorgeous and threatening, often at the same time, such as when Julia and Francis go out for dinner and stumble upon emergency services cleaning up a murder site only a few blocks away from their picture perfect residence. In Watcher, danger lurks in the most innocuous locations: convenience stores, movie theatres and, most importantly, through the giant picturesque windows that dominate their new home.
From the outset, Okuno frames the windows as a site of voyeurism. The film opens as Julia and Francis arrive in Romania, cab to their new home, and make love on the couch in full view of the windows. The camera slowly, methodically pulls back from their lovemaking to highlight just how exposed and vulnerable they are, a fact that comes back to haunt Julia when she discovers that a man in the apartment across the street, Daniel (Burn Gorman), is constantly watching her.
In short order Julia associates this voyeurism with a recent rash of murders plaguing the city. A serial killer nicknamed The Spider has been slitting the throats of women who bear a striking resemblance to Julia and she believes she is next on his hit list. Francis, however, isn’t sure, which tips the film into disappointingly conventional “is she paranoid or is she truly in danger?” horror territory.
As Julia’s fear, anxiety and paranoia spirals in the face of her disbelieving husband, his co-workers and the police, the audience is meant to question whether the danger is real or if she’s imagining the whole thing. The problem is that the women in these films are never crazy because the danger is always real. While it’s not a dealbreaker for Watcher, the film never quite shakes off a sense of familiar predictability.
Thankfully the cool colour palette, Julia’s gorgeous costumes and the foreign locale ensures that Watcher is never less than watchable. It’s also an exciting and commanding performance from Monroe, who anchors the film with ease; her Julia is an empathetic and relatable character, both of which are necessary qualities for the success of this kind of film. If Julia is a reflection of what we can expect from the actress moving forward, there’s reason to be excited.
The Bottom Line: This is a solid, well executed thriller, but it’s hard not to wish the film took more narrative risks. For fans looking for a fresh take on a 70s woman-in-danger narrative, Watcher doesn’t offer any surprises.
Watcher premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.