Maika Monroe appears in Watcher by Chloe Okuno, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
A young woman moves into a new apartment with her husband and is tormented by the feeling that she is being stalked by an unseen watcher in an adjacent building. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)
For much of its runtime, Watcher is a tense, well-executed thriller. Featuring a gutwrenching performance from Maika Monroe, gorgeously claustrophobic visuals, and skin-crawling sound design, Watcher delivers a masterclass in suspense. Until the final twenty minutes, where all of that tension sort of fizzles out instead of building to an explosion. But still, it’s an undeniably emotional, thrilling, and effective watch.
An Unreliable Narrator
After moving to Romania for her husband’s job, Julia (Monroe) begins to feel like someone’s watching her. A man follows her from the movie theater to the grocery store. And a neighbor from across the street constantly stares at her through the window. As if that’s not enough to freak her out, a serial killer known only as “The Spider” remains on the loose, beheading the women he kills. Are all of these connected in any meaningful way? Or is Julia having some kind of a psychotic break? For much of the film, writer Zack Ford and director Chloe Okuno withhold that answer. And it’s a great decision. Instead, they present Julia as a deeply unreliable narrator. She constantly sees things and makes connections that might not really be there. And that unreliability drives the film’s first hour – both narratively and emotionally.
None of the characters believe her, and Okuno’s direction only emphasizes this as not even the camerawork supports the story she’s telling. Keeping the audience in the same mindset as Julia, unsure if any of this is happening but terrified that it is, helps make her an immediately sympathetic character. And the more the other characters dismiss her, the more she (and the audience) believe she’s actually in danger. It’s quite effective, even if it’s reminiscent of plenty of other thrillers. In fact, despite Watcher‘s general lack of originality, the movie works quite well. Through a combination of Monroe’s stellar performance, Ford’s unreliable script, and Okuno’s claustrophobic visuals, Watcher offers a masterclass in building tension. Until it doesn’t.
Great Tension That Fizzles Out
From the moment Julia and her husband arrive in Romania, Okuno assaults the audience with unease. From the expansive, yet somehow claustrophobic, streets of Bucharest to Julia’s modestly sized apartment, there’s a constant sense of the world closing in on Julia – both physically and emotionally. And that feeling only increases the further down the rabbit hole Julia goes. The more alone she feels, the bigger the city appears – but the smaller it feels. And as Julia constantly feels the presence of her stalker, Okuno perfectly captures that overwhelming sense of ever-present danger. Even the quiet moments aren’t peaceful for Julia as the more she gets into her head, the more visceral her fears become. For most of the movie, Okuno and Ford never let up on this tension, either. Every time it seems like Julia might have finally found some solace, the duo immediately rips it away from her.
And on the one hand, it’s beyond heartbreaking watching Julia go through all of this. She’s either genuinely being stalked – and suffering greatly from it. Or the shock of moving to a new country, and the loneliness that comes along with such a move, is driving her insane. And either option is deeply heartbreaking. But fret not, the film does eventually clarify what’s going on. Unfortunately, that’s also where it loses a lot of its steam. A series of twists and quasi-fakeouts in the last act undermine the intensity of the film’s first hour and muddle Julia’s emotional arc a bit. It’s not enough to ruin the film or anything. But it’s a shame to see such well-built tension fizzle out like that. Ford and Okuno certainly communicate their message through that final act, but it almost feels needlessly cruel at times.
A Breathtaking Performance from Maika Monroe
Maika Monroe’s performance is by far the best part about Watcher. She perfectly walks that line between justified and irrational paranoia. And the way she’s able to guide the audience through Julia’s journey is beyond impressive. She’s in almost every scene of the film, constantly driving things forward. And she’s just incredible, whether she’s by herself or with another actor. Some of her best moments are opposite Julia’s neighbor, Irina (Madalina Anea). The dynamic between the two actresses is electric. And Irina’s unwavering support of Julia stands in stark contrast to almost every other character in the film. Similarly, Monroe’s scenes with Burn Gorman’s character are thrilling. But then, it’s just always enjoyable seeing Gorman in anything.
Watcher doesn’t give Monroe many opportunities to fully go off the deep end. Instead, her performance quietly simmers under the surface. But she delivers an absolutely gripping, heartbreaking performance as Julia. You immediately root for her, you believe the experiences she’s going through, and you desperately hope she’ll find some kind of safety. Her performance is the primary reason Watcher works as well as it does.
At the end of the day, Watcher is a tense, effective thriller that’s let down a bit by an underwhelming third act. But the combination of a great central performance, gorgeous set design, and plenty of creepy, claustrophobic visuals creates an experience that works far more than it doesn’t. The movie’s at its best when it embraces the unreliability of its main character. But overall, it’s a great watch that’s sure to thrill any lover of the genre.
Watcher had its World Premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section of Sundance Film Festival 2022.
Director: Chloe Okuno
Writer: Zack Ford
Rating: 4 out of 5
Part-time writer, part-time theatre nerd, full-time dork.