With the frequency of voyeurism as a theme on film, it’s telling that the often-male filmmakers rarely center the perspective of the often-female victims who are being watched. Instead, in films like Rear Window, Blow-Up, and, uh, most of Brian De Palma’s oeuvre, the audience is given the point-of-view of the person doing the watching, with little weight given to the person on the other end of the lens. Though writer-director Chloe Okuno (V/H/S/94) might have called her debut feature Watcher, she focuses instead on a woman who worries she’s being watched by her neighbor — and stalked by him around an unfamiliar city — in this slim, grim thriller.
Maika Monroe exudes Hitchcock blonde iciness as Julia, a former actress who moves with her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), to Bucharest, Romania, for his job. She tries to learn Romanian, but there’s little else for her to do other than wander the unfamiliar city while Francis works long hours. Her isolation is palpable, thanks to Monroe’s performance and wide shots by cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen that place her alone within the capital. She sees a constant silhouette in a window across the street, and she fears that person is watching her. Later, what should be a delightful experience — watching the ever-charming Charade in a theater — is ruined, when she feels eyes on her and then sees the same man in a grocery store. Meanwhile, her suspicions and loneliness are set against the backdrop of a city terrorized by a serial killer who is targeting young women, adding to Julia’s sense of paranoia. Her husband doesn’t seem to believe she’s in any danger, and the local cops are little help either.
At just 96 minutes, Watcher is a focused and spare little film without much fat or diversion. Okuno crafts a mood of dread throughout, and the movie moves quickly toward its conclusion, which somehow simultaneously unnerves the audience while undercutting some of the film’s previous efforts. Watcher is just shy of being truly interesting and bold, but there is something here. This doesn’t seem like a first feature; Okuno feels fully in control of the audience and everything that appears on screen. Nielsen’s cinematography is both beautiful and thoughtful, whether in the use of windows and reflections, or the way that the camera skates over Julia’s pursuer, leaving him just on the periphery of her and our vision. Bucharest looks gorgeous, with picturesque cafes and impressive architecture, but shooting during COVID gives the town a deserted feel that adds to Julia’s unease.
The overall spare approach also extends to the film’s characterizations of its main characters, but it’s Julia who suffers the most. Though Monroe does strong work in Watcher, there isn’t much to Julia beyond her fear and listlessness. Julia’s larger lack of development makes it harder to latch on to her as a human being, but it does lend itself to seeing her as a blank slate that most women can see themselves — and their own fear — in. She does at least refuse to be a victim, turning the tables on the man she believes is watching her and following him around town. However, her efforts to fight back are countered by men she should be able to trust who downplay the threat while gaslighting and silencing her.
Almost no one stands by Julia’s side, but Watcher remains in her corner throughout its brief runtime. One climactic shot from her perspective truly puts the audience in her head, and it lingers for days. Watcher takes the fear of being watched to its extremes, but this is an everyday threat to women, making its action feel far too real.
“Watcher” is in theaters Friday and available on demand June 21.