'Watcher': An Atmospheric Thriller That Plays It Too Safe
Updated: Jan 24, 2022
With most debuts, the filmmaker's influences are pretty easily seen. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it simply just means that the filmmaker is trying to develop their voice, and is trying different things and seeing what sticks. This is especially true of director Chloe Okuno's debut feature Watcher. With this film, it's clear she is taking cues from Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, and Sofia Coppola to name a few. The film features a young woman moving to Romania with her boyfriend, and becoming increasingly worried that she is being stalked by a man who lives in the building across from them. While the basic premise has been done in various ways before, Okuno and co-writer Zack Ford play with themes of isolation and paranoia in ways that border on the film being more than what it seems on the surface. Despite their best efforts, however, the film feels rather middling, and it suffers from feeling too conventional.
The film's premise is simple, a woman finds herself in a new place where she doesn't know anyone, she doesn't know the language, and basically just feels like an outsider. Much of the runtime follows our protagonist, Julia, as she tries to adjust to her new life in Romania, all the while dealing with the fear of a man that she feels is watching her from his window. Okuno creates such an uneasy, tense atmosphere in the film, which is arguably the film's best asset. She puts the audience in Julia's headspace so well, and illustrates the confusion, anxiety, and loneliness that she experiences. Whenever she encounters her possible stalker, the film immediately ramps up the tension and allows the audience to feel the fear that Julia is experiencing. The film excels in this regard, but most of the other aspects feel a bit lacking.
An exception to this would be Maika Monroe's performance. Monroe is an actor that I generally like, but I haven't exactly been wowed by her. This might be the best performance I've seen from her yet, as she feels like a real person. It's a bit of an understated performance, yet she brings such a full range of emotion to it. She is basically the audience surrogate, allowing us to experience the film through her perspective. This can sometimes be a thankless role, or cause the actor's work to be minimized by the film's actions, but Monroe manages to stand out and deliver an excellent performance, and allows us to empathize with her. The rest of the performances in the film are a bit of a mixed bag. The only other one that really stood out to me was Burn Gorman as Julia's potential stalker, Weber. Gorman has this unsettling presence to him that makes you question whether or not he is a villain. It's a role that could have easily been more cliched, but Gorman brings a sense of pathos to the character that makes him feel more human.
The film's biggest issue to me is that it feels like Okuno and Ford could have gone a different route to make something more impactful. It's as if the film is caught between being an homage to thrillers of the past, and being a subversive take on them. The film plays with audience expectations, and kept me wondering what direction the film would take. While the film does feel like it's heading towards an interesting and shocking ending, it ends up taking the safe route, and leaves the film feeling way more standard and predictable than it could have been. It's hard to discuss this aspect of the film without getting into spoilers, so I'll just say that the film appears to be going one way that could allow the film make a more interesting statement, but instead just feels like more of the same.
The film does have some decent camerawork, thankfully. There are moments where I was pretty impressed with the camera movement, especially some of the POV shots. There are two that really stood out to me specifically, these being one that takes place at a movie theater and another that involves a plastic bag. The film is also bookended by a pair of great shots that start and end the film on a strong note. It's just a shame that everything in the middle is hit or miss. Despite the camera movement being strong, the nondescript color palette leaves certain moments feeling bland. I can see why the film uses the colors it does, as it does contribute to the uneasy atmosphere of it at times, but it doesn't always work either. It's not like the film should be popping with color, but I do think it could have been a little less monochrome.
Despite my issues with it, I feel that Chloe Okuno does make a decent effort here. I think she is ultimately hampered by a lot of the same issues that many debuts have, and that with time, she could really come into her own as a filmmaker. The film just feels too safe and conventional for this to be a true breakout for her. I can't fault her too much for taking the safer route with the film, as it might still pay off in the long run. Some filmmakers arrive on the scene with a unique, defining feature, while others gradually build to that point. I only hope that Okuno continues on the latter path, as I see quite a bit of potential in her. This film should still get her some recognition, and allow her to make even more interesting films in the future. It may play it safe, but for some people, it might be just what they want from the film. Unfortunately, I was more intrigued by the more atmospheric nature of the film, and felt that the narrative was rather thin and predictable. It takes what could have been an interesting exploration of isolation and anxiety, and turns it into a run-of-the-mill thriller. It's elevated slightly by Maika Monroe's performance, and certain elements of Chloe Okuno's directing, but fails to live up to its fullest potential.