In the opening shot of the new thriller Watcher, Julia (Maika Monroe) looks out a taxi window with a glimmer of excitement at the Bucharest buildings that surround her new residence. She and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) have just moved from the US to Romania for work, even though Julia doesn’t know the Romanian language nearly as well as her hubby. She spends her first days there working to remedy the linguistic barrier, listening to foreign language courses while discovering the city on-foot. But bumming around Bucharest gets much more tense by the presence of Daniel (Burn Gorman), an across-the-way neighbor who too frequently looks into the married couple’s apartment window and who Julia suspects may be following her around as well.

Watcher is the first feature from writer/director Chloe Okuno and while it may not be the most auspicious debut, there are some signs of promise in the way she brings the audience into this tale. Visually, she captures rainy Bucharest in its paradoxically opulent griminess as the high-concept story vacillates between stately and seedy. All the angles to suggest a shadowy figure is stalking Julia are there, from the negative space of the most tense frames to the shallow focus on Julia’s worried face. Like Monroe’s 2014 breakthrough It Follows, it’s all about putting us in the mindset that the protagonist could be in danger and under pursuit at any moment. Up until the final 15 minutes, the pace and rhythm is in line with a slow-burn thriller, although it can feel more like it’s spinning its wheels rather than calculatedly creaking them for effect.

Where Watcher flats flat is in the scant screenplay, adapted by Okuno from a script written originally by Zack Ford. There is shockingly little character development amid the limited ensemble; a next-door neighbor character played by Madalina Anea may be the most well-rendered person in the whole film and she’s only really in a few scenes. Okuno does a fine job setting up the scenario of whether or not Julia is actually in danger and considering what she should do about it but the conflicts therein too often become redundant. I understand that Okuno is more concerned with establishing a mood of unease rather than writing scenes of lengthy dialogue but nevertheless, there has to be a compelling narrative first to make the atmospheric scenes resonate.

From a story perspective, Watcher plays like a Eurotrash mash-up of two classics, one from a very similar genre and another from a different genre entirely. Polanski’s horror film Repulsion, which also follows a young woman’s descent into paranoia through her perceived encounters with menacing men, seems to have been a touchstone for Okuno while making this film. While existential dramedy Lost in Translation isn’t scary, I was often reminded of Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte when watching Monroe’s Julia try to find herself in an intimidating new city. Glusman’s Francis also shares similarities with Giovanni Ribisi’s Translation character, both blasé workaholics whose disinterest in their wive’s satisfaction (and well-being, in Watcher’s case) should land them in hot water more than it actually does.

Glusman hasn’t made much of an impact on me in his filmography thus far and he’s a total bore as a character who needs sharper definition to make the relationship angle of this movie work. It doesn’t help that he and Monroe have little to no chemistry, although it’s possible that was somewhat intentional. Monroe is a talented young actress and this should theoretically be as much a showcase for her abilities as It Follows was 8 years ago but this project just isn’t up to her level. It’s hard to tell what on the page drew her to this role but I hope she’s able to find better scripts in the future, if for no other reason than to firmly retain her scream queen status. Watcher wears the guise of better voyeuristic thrillers but it’s ultimately not much more than window dressing.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Jurassic World Dominion, the conclusion to the Jurassic World trilogy starring Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, which finds dinosaurs now living alongside humans all over the world as the fight to determine the true apex predator comes to an end.
Streaming on Netflix is Hustle, a sports drama starring Adam Sandler and Queen Latifah about a former basketball scout who tries to revive his career by recruiting a player with a checkered past from overseas to play in the NBA.
Debuting on HBO Max is The Janes, a documentary highlighting a group of activists who built an underground network that provided safe and free abortions prior to the passing of Roe v. Wade.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup