This review originally ran as part of Paste’s 2022 Sundance coverage.
Maika Monroe knows better than almost any actor working today how to turn her head or widen her eyes in mounting horror. The control she has over her body, the ability she has to convey realistic fear and her 2014 double-header of The Guest and It Follows made her an instant household name for genre fans. Perhaps one of those was director Chloe Okuno, who knows exactly what to do with her star in her paranoid debut feature (which follows her V/H/S/94 segment from last year), Watcher. A straightforward little B-treat, Monroe’s furtive glances out her Rear Window morph Watcher into a moody thriller elevated by its acting.
Monroe plays Julia, a beautiful young housewife cooped up in an empty apartment and cooped up in an intimidating and isolating Bucharest after moving there with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) for his work. Francis speaks Romanian. He entertains clients, makes friends, grabs drinks, chastises fresh cab drivers and translates day-to-day interactions with neighbors and landlords. Julia has none of that. No job, no friends, no real way to communicate with the world aside from her baser senses. She has her taped language lessons, which soundtrack her wistful wanderings around her lovely pale apartment and its massive window. Through that window, she sees those marking the building across the way. One of them contains a figure that also stands at the glass, looking right back.
As Okuno twists the screws on the plot—Francis and Julia take a late-night stroll past police, conducting what they later learn to be a serial murder investigation—her characters unravel exactly how we want them to. Monroe’s antsy explorations into the emptied-out world around her add an element the actress is well-familiar with playing: The uncertain but persistent feeling that she’s being followed. Okuno shoots these scenes precisely, to evoke a cold sweat through the intentional obstruction of a face and the focus on a particularly bland yet threatening set of clothes and postures. A grocery store pursuit is shot well; a sparse screening of Charade is downright intense. But these more simple sequences belie deeper and darker throughlines that she and co-writer Zack Ford seek to follow: The blurring distinction between hunter and prey; the aggravating hurdle keeping some from believing even those closest to them without reservation; the inherent, tragic dangers of navigating public and private space as a woman.
Watcher flourishes as it complicates its premise beyond the unknowable and faceless desires of a shadowy silhouette. When do finally meet said suspicious neighbor (Burn Gorman), the resulting scenes are the film’s best. Monroe is fantastic alone—reacting both to intense fears and to indignation at Glusman’s fed-up patronizing—but with the always-nuanced Gorman, Watcher taps into something sharper, creepier and enjoyably ‘90s in its psychological execution. Okuno conducts them all brilliantly, snagging flashes of humor amidst the tension and bringing out the very best in supporting characters like Madalina Anea’s Irina.
But when it comes to controlling the actions of the film itself, Okuno can meander, loosening the 95-minute thriller too lackadaisically to maintain its proper pulse-pounding pace. A few too many narrative sideroads and alleyways distract from the movie’s single-lane premise, which always pointed to a clear destination. Thankfully, it’s always lovely to observe even while it dallies—either appreciating some of Okuno’s savvy frames or Monroe’s strikingly red costuming while we wait for the next incident to pop up, freak us out and, as in its final moments, actually pay off some of this voyeurist edging.
Director: Chloe Okuno
Writers: Zack Ford, Chloe Okuno
Stars: Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman, Ciubuciu Bogdan Alexandru, Burn Gorman
Release Date: January 21, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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