Director Chloe Okuno’s debut film, Watcher, is not an overtly feminist take on the voyeur/stalker sub-category of the thriller genre. Working with a screenplay by Zack Ford, Okuno’s movie functions on several levels, all of them effective: as a deadly earnest piece of suspense; as a haunting meditation on dislocation, alienation and loneliness; as an expat nightmare; and, yes, as a blistering indictment of female objectification, the male gaze and the pervasive dismissal of women’s trauma and anxiety.
Watcher stars Maika Monroe, and it is her performance — by turns muted and furious, assertive and self-erased — that carries the film. She plays Julia, the wife of Francis (Karl Glusman), an American of Romanian descent whose new job moves the young couple from the U.S. to Bucharest. He has a place to go every day, she doesn’t; he speaks the language; she doesn’t. If you’ve ever been alone in a foreign land, you will recognize Julia’s reactions to the strangeness: curiosity, frustration, yearning, wonder, loneliness.
But this strangeness is compounded, exponentially. Gazing out her large apartment window one night, Julia sees a shadowy figure in a window across the street, apparently staring at her. Then, walking home one night, she and Francis happen upon a crime scene, learning later while watching the news that it might have been a brutal murder by a local serial killer called “The Spider.” When Julia begins to suspect she is being followed around town, her sense of alienation ratchets into outright dread.
Her husband, at first alarmed and sympathetic, becomes increasingly impatient with what he deems his wife’s outsized panic. This, along with some tepid intervention by law enforcement, only works to compound Julia’s sense of isolation and peril. And one of the finest achievements of the film — indeed, perhaps, its raison d’etre — is that the viewer becomes enmeshed, in fact implicated, in the sense of uncertainty and confusion. Is Julia just being paranoid?
Okuno’s film is not your typical American thriller with its procedural obsessions, cartoon foreshadowing, ham-fisted zoom shots and titillating jump-scares doled out on the regular. It has, instead, a very European feel; it is deliberate and assured, rendered in blue hues and quiet emotions that tangle and knot up at a pace I can only describe as mature. In this sense, Watcher is reminiscent in many ways of the classic 1998 Danish film The Vanishing, another movie that took its own sweet, terrible time descending through layers of uncertainty into the stuff of mortal terror.
The film also draws tastefully from the work of Roman Polanski and Alfred Hitchcock, and I am not being gratuitous in mentioning those two very male masters of the form. Had John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow rented an apartment in Bucharest instead of New York, the first half of Rosemary’s Baby would have looked and felt a lot like Watcher. Monroe’s powerhouse performance is in many regards a latter-day updating of Farrow’s haunted, hunted performance in that film, and no less harrowing.
It is Hitchcock, however, who seems to hover like a mist throughout Okuno’s film, which could be viewed as a respectful but powerful rebuttal to the director of Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window and other creepy landmarks of the male gaze. This statement is less political than aesthetic, and I don’t want to overplay Watcher’s ideological or philosophical argument. The movie works first and foremost as a thriller, with a series of curdling final-act twists that left me stunned, even though they often fell in line with the standard requirements of the genre itself.
It’s more to the point that Okuno and screenwriter Ford have made a completely effective and disturbing thriller while also boring the voyeur’s peephole in the other direction in order to look through. At the same time, the movie plays with the idea of the pursuer and the pursued, subject and object, so much so that Julia’s trauma becomes a thing in itself — a kind of monster that can neither be named or recognized until it may be too late. And that — the uncertainty, the gaslighting, that is only truly acknowledged when its own worst outcome is realized — is what grants Watcher such excruciating tension.
Watcher is now showing at Broadway Metro; showtimes and tickets at BroadwayMetro.com.