Watching a young American go to pieces in a strange European country is not exactly a new premise. Sometimes you wind up with exploitative trash, but other times, you get captivatingly dark cinema. It all just depends on the execution. Watcher is decidedly in the latter category, presenting a strong psychological thriller as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. With lots of style, a good lead performance, and a sense of menace, there’s a lot to like here. The movie isn’t perfect, but it does manage to leave a very strong impression on its audience. What more can you ask for?
Watcher wears its influences on its sleeve with pride. A lesser filmmaker, or a film with a lesser leading lady, would just come off as derivative. That’s not the case here, so you can just appreciate it as homage. If you’re in the right mood (being a genre fan won’t hurt), this is an incredibly fun movie, albeit one that’s on the bleaker side.
Julia (Maika Monroe) has just moved to Bucharest with her boyfriend Francis (Karl Glusman). An American, she can’t speak the language, so she’s quickly isolated while Francis is at works. Not only does the city feel oppressive, rumors swirl of a local serial killer, one targeting women. So, nothing is really set up for her to feel at home. That’s before things even get bad for her.
Looking out her window, Julia begins to become convinced that she is being constantly watched by an unsettling looking neighbor (Burn Gorman). She even sees him out and about, potentially following her. The more she sees him, the more her sanity begins to crack, worrying Francis. If she’s just being paranoid, Julia is pushing away the one person close to her. If she’s right, however, her life may well be in danger.
Maika Monroe is someone I consistently state is going to be a star. Watcher is more evidence that the day is closing in. She’s aces at being a scream queen but putting a spin on it. Monroe always lets you see what’s going on behind her eyes. Watching her here is an hypnotic experience. Karl Glusman is unremarkable, while Burn Gorman is as off-putting as you’d expect. The cast also includes Madalina Anea, but Monroe is the true focus.
Filmmaker Chloe Okuno has a compelling way of telling this story. Along with her co-writer Zack Ford, this always feels like it’s in debt to the likes of Brian De Palma, David Fincher, and Roman Polanski, but it never feels like lesser work. While Okuno could have paced things a little tighter, she and Ford consistently make this an intense experience. There are jumps, surprises, and a dark edge that’s hard to resist.
Watcher is an arty take on a potentially grimy genre premise. While not quite elevated horror, it’s the type of small offering that’s easily appreciated at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie works, due in no small part to Maika Monroe. Keep an eye on Chloe Okuno too, as she’s going places…