Movies · Reviews

‘Watcher’ Chases Maika Monroe With Uncertainty and Dread

It seems Maika Monroe is being followed once again. Or is she?
Maika Monroe in Watcher
Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ
By  · Published on January 25th, 2022

This review of Chloe Okuno’s Watcher is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.

New places can be intimidating — a new workplace, a new school, etc — and that feeling only intensifies with distance and isolation. Add in a language barrier, and that feeling of uncertainty can blossom into terror. Add in a serial killer on the loose, and, well, you have Chloe Okuno‘s atmospheric and dread-filled thriller, Watcher.

Julia (Maika Monroe) and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) have arrived in Bucharest for his new job, and while she’s fully supportive she’s also in a bit over her head. His work keeps him away from home for long hours, and while she’s trying to learn the language, Julia’s days find her unable to communicate with most of the people she encounters. Two additional elements put her even further on edge — a man appears to watching her from a nearby apartment window, and a serial killer is stalking the city’s streets. The escalation continues when the “stalker” begins following her, but with the police no help and her husband away — hell, even when he’s home he doesn’t quite believe her — a madman’s knife feels ever closer.

Watcher builds its thrills around some familiar elements, but Okuno’s direction and Monroe’s performance work in tandem to keep the film a step or three ahead of its peers. Julia’s lack of immersion is matched by viewers who most likely don’t speak Romanian as the film offers no subtitles — her lack of understanding is ours as well. What is clear, though, is the threat introduced by the shadowy figure following her. Any doubt as to his existence is erased when Julia shows store security footage to Francis, but even then he wonders aloud if she’s not just imaging menace that isn’t there. Could this simply be an embarrassing misunderstanding?

Okuno and co-writer Zack Ford are smart to keep viewers with Julia every step of the way. Her perspective is ours, and while we can’t follow conversations in Romanian we can and do understand the dread creeping into her days and nights. Julia meets Francis’ coworkers who all enjoy a laugh at her “imagination,” she befriends a neighbor named Irina (Madalina Anea) who has a possibly aggressive ex, and through it all the man in the window remains a mystery. Until he doesn’t.

Watcher teases the narrative out well, but the film never drags or even really feels like a slow burn as we’re on the alert at all times. The city’s streets are far from packed, and whether Julia’s looking out her own apartment window or sitting at a coffee shop with her back to one, viewers are compelled to scan the screen in search of eyes looking back our direction. Benjamin Kirk Nielsen‘s camera finds the city’s beauty in architecture old and new, but it’s just as enamored by the possibility of something threatening just out of view. A walking sequence finds tension at every corner, a subway-set sequence delivers mounting dread in its stillness, and while onscreen violence is minimal when it does arrive it does so with aggressive impact.

The concept of gaslighting is present here as Francis, his friends, and even the police dismiss Julia’s concerns as those of a lonely foreigner, but it should be difficult for viewers to feel the same. Part of it is what we ourselves are watching unfold, but an even bigger element is Monroe’s performance. She has range as evident in everything from The Guest (2014) to Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) to Villains (2019), but she excels at playing characters haunted by the intangible. It Follows (2014) and the underseen Bokeh (2017) highlight it well as she expresses fear, grief, and disillusionment without the need to go big. It’s in her eyes, that uncertainty over what’s coming her way, and it’s present again here. We believe there’s a threat because she does.

What becomes of that threat, and indeed, whether or not there even is one to begin with, is best left discovered while engrossed in Watcher‘s Hitchcockian world. Pacing and tone are on point throughout leading Julia and viewers to an ending that’s as earned as it is satisfying. Okuno’s feature debut couldn’t be more different from her segment in last year’s V/H/S/94 — a handheld nightmare involving sewers, cults, and rats — and while that short feels fun this film feels accomplished and polished while still delivering genre thrills. She’s the real deal and has quickly secured herself as a filmmaker to, well, watch.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.