[NOTE: Viewed as an official selection of the 2022 Seattle International Film Festival]
When a director makes a grand visual statement for their feature debut, it can often go one of two ways: it’s an instant winner, or it misses the point, and they need to keep refining their craft. In the case of Chloe Okuno, rising to feature status after cutting her teeth on shorts, and a segment of last year’s V/H/S/94, her evolution could stand to be a little of both. Watcher simply screams experimental, if not also rough in composition. It illustrates a stark, chilling painting of alienation and surveillance. But if the goal were to challenge the likes of Hitchcock or Coppola, Okuno still has quite a way to go before she arrives at that specific threshold.
The leading lady might already have advanced several steps ahead. Julia (Maika Monroe) is as loyal a wife as she could to a roving marketing exec while staying busy as an on-off actress. Hubby Francis (Karl Glusman) has just moved them both to a new branch of his firm in Bucharest, Romania. Once moved into their apartment, her fish-out-of-water attitude rears a contrived head. With no grip on the local language or customs, she wiles away most hours wandering about, discovering the town, and analyzing common neighbor behaviors by looking out her window. To her dismay, she finds a man looking back at her from an apartment across the street. Her fears build when a serial killer begins to roam the streets, paranoia leading her to believe the stranger could be who the authorities are searching for.
And that might be all there is to Okuno’s story (adapted from an existing Zack Ford screenplay), a simple plot boiling in atmospherics for a tight 91 minutes and change. It doesn’t aim for high art or total disruption of familiar genre quirks. Watcher plays it safe with its plot, familiar even. No alarming shocker beyond what is at face value. You’d ask for more, were it not for Okuno deliberately letting any given moment of terror pulsate with sharp-eyed grace. What’s there in that brief time will leave the viewer in a dream-like state, distanced from any manner of reality.
And that aspect might not be a complete blessing, occasionally pulling the audience away from a murder mystery rendered slightly incomprehensible due to the language gap. Julia’s mind does come off as a complex sort. A quick study in her new surroundings, albeit frozen by a growing fear. It doesn’t help Francis is a blatant workaholic, leaving his wife to her own devices most of the time. That fervent isolation does some good, Julia channeling her darker emotions into concentrated detective activity, particularly when she’s within razor’s edge of the apparent suspect. Or at least, someone with a similar body type (Burn Gorman at his most subdued).
Okuno makes no quiet case for a modern-day damsel in distress, fueled by a fire of suspense. Monroe, whose nimble screen presence has impressed me in the past (ex: The Guest, It Follows, Honey Boy), once more puts on a show. Committed to any standard chiller feature archetype, she sees those slim opportunities to play the card of mental dexterity. Balancing craftiness plus strength plus borderline anxiety for such a composite portrayal requires a ready mind. Monroe still has it, acute and very unguarded. Often with only the faintest use of body language versus large gestures. Such trickery even puts the director on notice at points, a little distracted here and there while attempting to land an unpredictable ending on both feet.
Brilliantly supported in aesthetics through a bleak Euro-thriller color palette, shot on location by Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, the subconscious-like state Julia carefully trots around aims for an impressive swing. To a curious mind, Watcher might stand as a winner, a lesson in both linguistics and quiet physicality when confronting a threatening figure. It does make for decent drama school homework viewing, covering familiar ground on basic subtlety, never wasting a frame of mood. Okuno spends the entire film searching for that middle ground, rolling with a film school demeanor, and finishing in spellbound confusion. And for me, that worked fine enough, until said confusion shifted into a thematic frustration. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Watcher is currently playing in select theaters; rated R for some bloody violence, language, and some sexual material/nudity; 91 minutes.