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'The Watchers': A Tense, Yet Disappointing Horror Thriller

It is always interesting when the child of an established director decides to try their hand at filmmaking, as there are generally one of two ways this can go. The child either follows closely in their parent’s footsteps, or emerges with something quite different. Sometimes you have people like Brandon Cronenberg or Goro Miyazaki who work in the same styles as their respective fathers, and sometimes you have people like Sofia Coppola or Jason Reitman who have followed their own paths as directors. With her debut feature, The Watchers, it appears that Ishana Night Shyamalan is trying her hand at the type of twisty horror-thrillers that made her father, M. Night Shyamalan, a household name. Given her work on the Apple TV show Servant, it seems she has a taste for the genre, so between that and her father’s influence, it makes sense that she would choose a project like The Watchers as her first film. The result is a film that introduces Shyamalan as a promising new director, but also shows her greenness as well. There are certainly some major issues with this film, but despite this, the film still stays intriguing and shows some potential for Shyamalan going forward. 

Mina (Dakota Fanning) is a young woman living in Ireland. She works at a pet shop and is tasked with transporting a valuable bird to Belfast. On her way there, her car breaks down in a mysterious forest. As night falls, she begins to hear strange noises in the forest, and takes refuge in a building with three strangers. Led by Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), the group find themselves at the mercy of strange creatures known as The Watchers, who observe them every night through a large window. Mina tries to hatch a plan to escape, and must work together with her new companions to travel through the vast forest and evade The Watchers to survive. 

It is clear that Ishana Night Shyamalan works fairly well with supernatural horror, as the parts of the film that focus on the creatures and the parts that are more atmospheric are the most successful. There are some good moments of tension throughout, and the forest setting does come off unsettling for the most part. I also like that the creatures remain in shadow for most of the film, as it gives them more mystery and fuels speculation as to what they are. One of the best parts of the film is where Mina and Madeline are out in the woods at night and are watching The Watchers, as it both reveals new information about the creatures and boasts some of the best direction of the film. Moments like this truly show the potential that Shyamalan has as a filmmaker, and I hope she will get the opportunity to build off of it in future projects.

Where the film really struggles is with its writing, as it feels ill-formed and has some questionable dialogue. In fairness, The Watchers is based off of the novel of the same name by A.M. Shine, so some of the issues could stem from the source material. I haven’t read the novel, however, so I only have the film to go off of. That said, the structure of the film feels a bit haphazard, as it kind of limps along for some stretches. The first two acts are the most guilty of this, as there are some areas that slow the film down significantly despite some bursts of energy here and there. The third act kicks everything into overdrive, throwing quite a bit at the viewer as it wraps everything up. While it does manage to wrap everything up, the revelations that come at the end aren’t the most satisfactory. I didn’t hate the way everything turns out, necessarily, but I wasn’t a fan of how some of the twists and turns were executed. The final twist especially hit me strangely, and the very end of the film feels more like a shrug. 

The script really tanks most of the film, which is a shame because there are some interesting ideas here. The concept of healing from trauma and trying to become your own person is present here, but it doesn’t seem like the film knows what to do with it. There are moments that touch on this, as well as the psychological implications within, but there isn’t much depth to them. Sometimes, a film can be surface level and let the audience fill in the blanks, but this film doesn’t even have that. It is as if the film poses certain ideas in their most basic form and is asking “Is this something?” The answer is “Yes”, but then there is no further expansion on these ideas. It is kind of frustrating, as if Shyamalan is playing things too safe. I would much rather her take a bigger risk in exploring some of these themes a bit further than to barely do anything with them. It is disappointing, because the plot and several of its details are interesting on paper, but don’t always work in execution. At the very least, Shyamalan’s direction helps keep things intriguing, but there are some frustrating elements for sure. 

Circling back to the atmospheric nature of the film, I do appreciate the foreboding look of the forest and the building that most of the film takes place in. There is a muted color palette and dim lighting that sometimes lessens the dynamism of the film’s overall look, but it at least feels rather intentional. I really like the look of the building, which is basically just one room with a large window that doubles as a mirror. It is rather bare bones, but the spareness does work to highlight the hopelessness and fear that the characters are experiencing. There is a particular set that I really appreciated, but won’t spoil here. Suffice to say that there may be more to the room than meets the eye, and that this aspect is crafted well. On top of that, it helped bring me back into the world of the film, and helped bring the momentum back up. It isn’t the most visually adventurous film, but it gets the job done for the most part. 

It is really nice to see Dakota Fanning in a movie again, and her being the lead makes it even better. She gives a very internal performance, which some might write off as her not doing much, but it makes a ton of sense for the character and some of the things she’s dealing with. Fanning has been a pro since she was a kid, and it has been interesting to see how she’s refined her craft as an adult. She carries this film well, and has a quiet energy that still manages to have some weight to it. Olwen Fouéré has a fascinating presence throughout the film, as she takes on the role of the leader of the group trapped in the forest. She portrays the strictness of the character rather well, and her clashes with Fanning’s character are quite good. Fouéré has a magnetic quality to her performance, and I really appreciated some of the nuance she brings to the role. Georgina Campbell and Oliver Finnegan round out the main group, and both turn in some solid work. Their characters are underdeveloped, but they are able to mine some good stuff from them nonetheless. Campbell has this waning hope to her that is heartbreaking to watch, while Finnegan gives a more boisterous performance compared to his co-stars. The four main actors do work well together, and are able to help salvage some of the weaknesses of the material they are working with.

The Watchers is a film that has a lot of potential, but doesn’t fully live up to it. Ishana Night Shyamalan has a lot of promise and skill as a filmmaker, but it is clear that she has some room to grow. I did like some of the things she did, but you can tell this is her first crack at making a movie. I do hope she gets the chance to make another movie, and that she can learn from some of the missteps that were made with this film. I really wanted to like this one more than I did, because so much of it sounds right up my alley. Some of it did work for me, but there is so much that did not sit well with me at all. At the very least, I stayed fairly invested, even during some of the more boring stretches of the film, and I can appreciate the world that Shyamalan brings to life here. But between the missed opportunities, sub-par writing, and some of its more blatant issues, The Watchers ends up being quite disappointing, but still has some bright spots scattered throughout.

Rating: 2.5/5

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