Hooptober 2022 #16: Watcher (2022)

Audiences only see any genuine joy on the face of Maika Monroe’s Julia at the beginning of Chloe Okuno’s Watcher. She rides in a taxi, taking in the sights of Bucharest, Romania. Only in this one moment, this new city offers her possibilities and adventures. Then the driver talks in Romanian to her husband. They have a conversation. He says something to her and she can’t answer. She only speaks English. Her husband had to translate for her. Julia’s new situation becomes apparent both to her and us the audience. She now lives somewhere as a stranger. The only link to other people will be her husband, and that’s only if he’s around her. Isolation replaces the sense of wonder we just saw.

Watcher is a film about being in a new place alone and the feelings of dread that come with it. Writer and director Chloe Okuno and actor Maika Monroe make the audience aware Julia isn’t just in a new city but is a woman in a new city. She frequently walks alone which carries its own fears. Julia constantly knows eyes are on her. Anywhere in this new city, she could be in danger and that she alone facing that danger. Julia has no network of friends here. She slowly learns the language but relies on the hope anyone she meets may speak English. If she gets lost or worse screams, can anyone help her? The audience always feels this for her.

The film also articulates the social dread of living in an apartment. Living is both a communal and isolated experience. People are around but you may only see them in passing or if there’s a disturbance. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself as a bad tenant. Julia routinely feels this. Her lack of employment and her husband’s late hours means she stays in this new home all day. She hears neighbors having sex. The landlady comes to fix things but only speaks Romanian. Every night when the lights are off though, Julia looks across at the building across from her. She thinks she sees someone stand in a window and look back at her.

One night Julia and her husband walk by a crime. A serial killer nicknamed The Spider beheaded a woman. This is not the first attack. At first, Julia finds this a little exciting. Very quickly though, her feelings change. Walking alone in the city, which already brought its own fears, becomes a more frightening activity. She suspects someone follows her while she’s out in the city. She swears someone is behind her during a trip to the movies and the grocery store. The person at the window only makes her more uncomfortable. Is this mysterious person across the street following her? Is it The Spider? Are they the same person?

Chloe Okuno puts Watcher in similar territory to Roman Polanski’s 60s paranoid thrillers. She gives the audience a very palpable feeling of paranoia. She and cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen set the credits to us looking at Julia and her husband through their large bay window. Looking through a window into a stranger’s home holds an appeal. This is why we watch films. Film is a window into another person’s life. However, windows work two ways. You may look out of your window but someone can also look back through yours. When Julia begins to feel this, it doesn’t matter if she closes the curtains.

Okuno never lets the audience think Julia isn’t in danger or alone. Like those Polanski thrillers, the men in Julia’s life offer her no comfort. When she goes back to grocery store to find evidence of a stalker, the clerk who recognizes her thought she was a thief. The police don’t protect her. Her husband is barely with her and when he is he doesn’t believe her. She worries her husband mocks in front of her to his Romanian coworkers in a language she barely understands.

Maika Monroe came to prominence in the great It Follows. In that film, she portrayed a teenager haunted by a spirit only she saw. Her situation here is only different in that her potential threat is a physical one. Monroe has no issue conveying Julia’s fear and vulnerability at her situation. She ably carries the weight of Julia’s loneliness. The film though does something interesting. Monroe doesn’t portray Julia as a passive individual as her character’s fear builds. She attempts being proactive by following her mystery neighbor but doing so makes her look like an aggressor. This action only serves to fuel her paranoia. Her fear maybe justified but methods may not. She becomes a watcher because of course, windows work both ways.

Watcher is an impressive debut full length from Chloe Okuno. She successfully revives a very particular kind of paranoid thriller. Both Okuno and her lead Maika Monroe convey a genuine sense of isolation and dread to the audience. Still it’s not truly paranoia if someone is out to get you.

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