Shortly after Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher” begins, Julia (Maika Monroe) asks her husband to wake her before he goes to work the next morning. But when she gets up the day is half gone, and all he did was send Julia a text with a creepy picture of her sleeping, insisting that she was just too danged pretty to listen to her.
Needless to say, this is not a man who’s going to believe his wife when she says she’s being stalked by a serial killer.
“Watcher” is a harsh and lonely thriller about a woman who moves to Romania to be with her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman, “Greyhound”) when he gets a new job. Unlike Francis, she doesn’t speak the language. She’s trying to learn, but for now she’s dependent on locals who happen to understand English or her husband’s translations, which she assumes are accurate and flattering.
They move into an impressively gigantic apartment, not so much in floor space as it is in discomfiting height, which makes her look small against the backdrop of her expansive windows. She spends quite a bit of time staring out at another apartment complex, and into a window where — it sure looks like — a mysterious man is staring right back, every night, and maybe even every day, although it’s harder to tell when it’s bright out.
With nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no one to talk to except her one sociable neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea, “The Protégé”), who’s only around a few hours of the day, Julia has a heck of a lot of time to think. Also, a heck of a lot of time to pay close attention to that man following her to the market, and to watch news reports about a serial killer in the neighborhood, and to wonder why her husband isn’t taking her seriously when she insists there’s a connection between her possible stalker (Burn Gorman, “The Offer”) and the brutal decapitation of local women who are a heck of a lot like her.
If “Watcher” was ever going to work as a film it needed a star who could captivate the screen all by their lonesome. Thank goodness it has Maika Monroe, the star of exceptional horror thrillers like “It Follows” and “Villains,” who always looks like she’s puzzling out something in the back of her mind and invites us to wonder at the film’s enigmas along with her. Frightened enough to bolster suspense yet capable enough to make us think she might survive this ordeal, Julia is a singular creation, and Monroe is one of the best horror actors of her generation. “Watcher” only cements that standing.
As a story, “Watcher” comes across like an early giallo thriller without the visual dynamism that usually comes part-and-parcel with those tales of young heroes investigating serial killers in Europe. But while perhaps a few more corpses and a bit more on-screen danger might have made “Watcher” more intense, it would be counterproductive to luxuriate in cinematic violence in a film that’s all about why it’s wrong not to take stalking and violence seriously. Okuno has made a film that puts its, sadly, highly topical story (about ignoring women when they say men are dangerous) ahead of broad entertainment value, and that’s for the better.
Still, as piercing as “Watcher” very much is, the film is somewhat undone by its lack of incident, which slows the pace down when it desperately needs to kick in. Benjamin Kirk Nielsen’s cinematography has a knack for finding anxieties in everyday objects like one particularly terrifying plastic bag, and in empty spaces that, sometimes, waffle between looking disturbingly lonesome and also looking inexpensively devoid of extras and props. It’s hard to tell whether Julia’s apartment comes across like a mausoleum because it represents her isolation or whether they just need a couple of plants to spruce the place up a bit.
The pacing and budget may be holding “Watcher” back a little, but Okuno’s thriller ends with a series of memorable moments — and at least one withering stare — that linger long after the credits roll. It’s a film about a bleak and cruel universe that is unkind to victims and eager to ignore reasonable pleas, a world that has a conscious and subconscious vendetta against women in general. It’s also a film that thinks it’s entirely possible to destroy that world, as terrifying as it is, and ultimately, it’s the movie’s principled strength that endures.
“Watcher” is now available to stream on-demand.