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Sundance 2022 Review: Watcher is all atmosphere, but has trouble holding our eye

Watcher (Sundance Film Festival)

Chloe Okuno’s feature debut sports buckets of chills and Hitchcockian suspense, but leans too hard on alienating coldness.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.)

Chloe Okuno’s Watcher is a thriller that offers viewers style and atmosphere to spare, but never quite manages to engage them in a way that comes across as gripping or scary. It is the kind of film where most viewers will spend more time ticking off the various references and suggestions of better films and filmmakers contained within than in getting involved with its story—this is understandable since the narrative proves to be so slight and negligible that when the big climax finally arrives, most audiences will find themselves thinking “That’s it?”

As the film opens, one-time actress Julia (Maika Monroe) has elected to give up her career and move with her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), to his family’s homeland of Bucharest, where he has secured a new job. Now living in an unfamiliar country where she doesn’t yet know the language and with her husband always away at work, Julia is already profoundly alienated when she stares out of her apartment window and thinks that she sees a strange man (Burn Gorman) staring back at her from another apartment in the complex. From this, she begins to suspect that she is being followed whenever she goes out and while she cannot prove it, she is convinced that it is the man from the apartment.

When she confesses her suspicions to Francis, he is unsurprisingly less than receptive to her claims. After all, even if the guy did happen to be at the same grocery store and movie theater as her, it isn’t that shocking since he lives in the neighborhood as well. As for staring out his window, it is no different than what she herself is doing. He tries to convince her that she’s just letting her sense of isolation drive her to paranoia, but Julia insists that there is more to it than that.

Her suspicions ratchet up further when she becomes aware of a serial killer in the city known as “The Spider,” who has already murdered two women—one of them in her neighborhood. She begins to worry that the guy may indeed be him… and is planning to make her his next victim.

A strange combination of Rosemary’s Baby and Lost in Translation, Okuno (making her feature debut, having previously directed one of the more effective segments of V/H/S/94) is a slow-burn thriller that owes a considerable debt to the classic thrillers of such filmmakers as Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, and Dario Argento. As influences go, you can’t do better than those three but their best efforts all demonstrate a unique personal touch that separates them from the usual genre exercises; it’s that kind of touch that’s sorely lacking here.

The idea of seeing a film along their lines but told from a female perspective sounds provocative enough. But Okuno handles the material in a slick and proficient manner that makes for easy viewing without ever getting under the skin. Things pick up a bit during the finale, but it proves to be too little too late to make much of an impact.

The best thing about the film is Monroe, who looks like the classic Hitchcock blonde and delivers an effective performance despite working in a quieter and more restrained manner than one might expect. Gorman also has a couple of strong scenes as well, the best one when he happens (or does he?) to be on the same empty subway car as Julia. The city of Bucharest is essentially a character as well and offers up oodles of atmosphere, though Okuno too often relies on it to supply the chills that she and co-writer Zack Ford have neglected to include.

There are some other nice touches here and there (I like how all of the Romanian dialogue is unsubtitled, adding to Julia’s sense of isolation) but none of them really add up to much. This is a thriller that stays stuck in first gear way too long for its own good. By the time it finally begins to pick up steam, the end credits are running. Watcher isn’t terrible by any means, but it fails to deliver on its promises of bone-chilling terror.

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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