After Hatching, I’m tempted to make this year a month of just one-word movie titles directed by women. Heh. Though, honestly, just continuing to do this year after year seems consuming enough, even if covid has made me into a weird little hermit.
Tonight’s film was Watcher, written and directed by Chloe Okuno (and based on an original screenplay by Zack Ford). Maika Monroe (who’s really earned her modern-day Scream Queen mantle after It Follows and The Guest) stars as Julia, an ex-actress who moves to Bucharest with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) for his job. Left alone all day (and some evenings) in a plush furnished flat and with a language barrier she’s slowly trying to overcome, Julia senses she’s being stalked and watched by a neighbour she fears might be behind a series of gruesome neighbourhood murders.
I’m not gonna lie: I partly picked this because I was a travel fiend pre-covid and haven’t been so much as even on a bus since early 2020. I am past the point of the wanderlust-to-cabin-fever pipeline. And I’ve never been to Bucharest, despite having a friend who is from there, so it was nice seeing the location shots, even if filmed during a typically dreary, humid-looking spring [fun fact: the location was changed from NYC to Romania specifically to skirt pandemic rules; hmm.]
But the film doesn’t make Bucharest look like a snowy capital city of opportunity, but rather mould-daubed exteriors, rickety trams, grey-tinged sleety air and run-down cinemas and strip clubs, a bleak contrast against an American with sunny blonde hair. Even in her small comfort zones like drinking with a neighbour or trying to make a coffee shop her usual, the lighting and camerawork are dim and tight respectively, as we come to see that she’s struggling to settle in to a place that literally never warms to her.
All of this is the perfect backdrop to the unease that grows around Julia’s increasingly cloying sense of paranoia and the refusal of those around her to take her seriously. As a former immigrant myself I can empathise with Julia, but anyone who’s felt excluded, neglected or ignored can see something of themselves in this protagonist. That said, I think that shifting proceedings from NYC to a foreign-speaking country heightens Julia’s estrangement and ups the tension – which we’ve got in spades. The film’s pacing builds early on, mixing in the real, everyday tribulations of social and foreigner’s anxiety, and never fully lets up except for lulls – but lulls that lull you into thinking that they’re lulls. By the end, none of it feels forced or contrived.
I can’t say what I think the film’s ultimate message is without spoiling it, but I’ll just say that the final shot has a character giving a facial expression that speaks volumes. You can speculate on how the film is going to end but, given that it’s a story that’s been told before, it’s less about the mystery and more about the relatable aspects of Julia’s journey and mindset, and Monroe is so watchable I worry I’m about to make a terrible pun concerning the title of this film. So the review ends here, before it’s too late!