When her husband Francis (Karl Glusman, "Love") relocates to his family’s native Romania for a new job, Julia (Maika Monroe, "It Follows") frequently finds herself alone in a new apartment building in an unfamiliar neighborhood of a foreign city. Bucharest is already unsettled by a serial killer known as The Spider when Julia becomes convinced a man in an apartment across the street is observing them and, like him, becomes a “Watcher.”
Laura's Review: B+
If Alex Garland recently explored all the ways men threaten women, from condescension to physical assault in “Men,” cowriter (with Zack Ford)/director Chloe Okuno ("V/H/S/94") leans on patriarchal societies’ frequent dismissal of female concerns over potential threats. Unfortunately, Okuno undercuts her own film’s climax, resorting to a really cheap device usually reserved for a film’s villain, but her handling of almost every aspect of her film up until that point is masterful. This is a filmmaker to watch.
Monroe completely anchors the film as a supportive wife trying to get out and establish life in a new country, constantly listening to language tapes, exploring the area and hosting dinner parties for her husband’s business associates. She also befriends English-speaking next door neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea, "The Protégé"), making a pact to watch each other’s back after Julia confides her concerns and Irina shows her her gun. As the film progresses, we see the actress turn inward, her character increasingly isolated by her husband’s constant absences and episodes which paint her in an unflattering light to outsiders.
The film is beautifully designed, photographed (cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielson), edited (Michael Block) and blocked. Production designer Nora Dumitrescu creates a bright space for the couple’s apartment, softened with neutral pastels, a lovely framing for the blonde Monroe. Outside of the apartment, we are always aware of things unseen – the flashing lights of ambulances around the corner, the man settling in the seat behind Julia in a dark movie theater, the same man somewhere close within the maze of supermarket aisles and later within the bowels of the sex club Julia follows him into. In the film’s most brilliantly designed sequence, Julia descends in and old-fashioned wrought iron cage elevator as the man she fears, Samuel Veber (Burn Gorman, "The Dark Knight Rises"), ascends the spiral staircase which encircles it. Another, set on a subway train, is masterful in its slow focus on a prop to suggest the unthinkable.
In addition to Monroe, Gorman is really effective in a parallel performance which upends our perspective of his character in reverse of hers. Anea is one of several supporting actors who add local flavor. But Glusman is problematic, the character of Francis seemingly so concerned about his wife’s fears he is willing to report them to the police, then ultimately making light of them in a cannily staged public betrayal, a 180 reversal the actor, whose performance barely registers, cannot sell.
In attempting to raise doubt over whether Julia’s concerns are real or imagined, Okuno tips the scales a little too far towards the latter when we are supposedly viewing things from Julia’s point of view, making her audience guilty of the same behavior her film warns against. But the filmmaker knows how to stylishly turn the screws, her film exhibiting flashes of Hitchcockian brilliance. Too bad about the compromised ending, but “Watcher” will creep up on you.
Robin's Review: B-
IFC Midnight opens "Watcher" in theaters on 6/3/22.