Watcher Review – IGN
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Watcher is part of our Overlook Film Festival coverage, and is now available to stream on Shudder.
According to the New York State Attorney General, 1 in 12 women will be stalked in their lifetime. Which is to say that it makes sense that stalking was a bit of a theme at Overlook Film Festival. Jethica and Shudder’s Watcher both played in the 4-day festival’s truncated lineup of films. Though the first introduces a spectral element, Chloe Okuno’s Watcher grounds itself in hard, cold reality.
Maika Monroe plays Julia — an American woman who has followed her husband to Bucharest, Romania. She doesn’t speak the language, she doesn’t have any friends, but she does have a neighbor who can’t seem to get her off his mind. Reports of a serial killer named The Spider push tensions higher as Julia desperately tries to get anyone to believe that there’s someone following her every move.
Okuno builds tension with an effectiveness that almost makes it difficult to believe that Watcher is her feature debut. (V/H/S/94 fans, you know her from the meme-able Raatma segment. Hail Raatma!) Lingering camera work, a slow, building narrative, and the decision to keep the stalker faceless throughout much of the film’s runtime all work together to create bubbling suspense.
Enough cannot be said for what Monroe brings to the leading role. There’s a determination to Julia that will make Watcher’s slow-burn narrative more palatable to audiences who typically avoid that kind of story pacing. While tensions grow, we see Julia experience a range of believable, human responses to what’s unfolding around her. The isolation; the euphoria of finding a singular friend in a sea of people you don’t know; and the entire range of emotions one goes through while being gaslit create something hauntingly relatable in Julia’s story.
On the opposite side of that coin is Burn Gorman, billed only as “Watcher” in the film’s credits. While you’ll have to check out the film (it’s available on Shudder) to discover whether he’s a red herring or the one truly responsible for Julia’s nightmare, Gorman brings a quiet creepiness to his character.
The film’s story plays an important and interesting trick with Gorman’s character. In stalker narratives, scripts are often prone to depict their “watchers” as creepy crawlies that go bump in the night. But there’s a humanity to the Watcher that both adds to the suspension of disbelief and makes the story feel more real. Is Julia being gaslit by everyone around her — including her stalker — or has she truly lost her mind in her newfound isolation? These questions always feel like they have such an obvious outcome in stories like these, but several scenes go out of their way to make you wonder just what is really going on in Bucharest.
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As Julia’s journey unfolds, she’s met constantly by a very intentional male gaze that extends well beyond her would-be stalker. Upon arrival, their cabbie tells her she’s beautiful before conversing with her husband. Later, the first thing her language app teaches her is how to say “you are a beautiful woman”. This intent is capped off by Irina’s (Madalina Anea) — her first and only friend — job as a stripper and the fact that Julia is only in this new country in support of her husband. Okuno came into the film with female objectification with intent. Sex work is real work, and there’s no shame in being a house wife. And, by reducing the women to their beauty at every turn, it furthers the conversation of women as commodities to be won rather than real people with real experiences.