Eye of the Beholder – Watcher (2022)

I played catch-up with movies this weekend, checking some boxes on stuff I wanted to see from prior weeks. Among those was Chloe Okuno’s feature directorial debut. Watcher is a stylish, tense psychological thriller that’s much more effective in its fear elements than many other films that attempt to stake their claims in the horror genre. 

Julia and her husband move to Bucharest, Romania where his family ties and job make it a fairly easy transition for him. Julia doesn’t speak the language, has no friends, doesn’t know the environment, and spends most of her time alone in their apartment where she notices a figure that appears to be watching her from a window in the apartment building across the street. After walking by a crime scene, she begins to suspect there person watching her is a local serial killer. 

This was an impressive feature debut from director Chloe Okuno who also adapted the screenplay from Zack Ford’s original (at least that is what the writing credits suggest). She has a strong understanding of tension and builds it up gradually with good character writing and visual storytelling. The story’s foundation works wonderfully setting the tone to simmer as it works its way towards a slow boil.

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This is a great shot that shows the rift in their relationship

On the surface we are introduced to a happy couple but, pretty soon after, you start to realize that it’s Julia’s husband, Francis, who is happy. She is just sort of along for the ride. In that space, the themes of isolation, uncertainty, and unfamiliarity start to creep in and really take root. People are social creatures and removing that is detrimental. Fear, loneliness, isolation…all those things foster paranoia and Okuno smartly utilizes all of that to create the push-and-pull mechanism that drives the story. So, as we see Julia go further and further down the rabbit hole it’s tough to tell whether or not she’s going crazy. There is a resolution to that question, so don’t fret, but before the reveal either seems plausible. By doing the work on both sides of the equation, Osuka cultivates that unnerving feeling with great effectiveness. 

Scenes like this highlight how expressive her look is

The foundation is solid and a big part of the reason why things work well, but Maika Monroe brought that extra something special to the screen in her turn as Julia. She carries herself well, with quiet confidence, that starts to get chipped away at as the things she’s experiencing seem to only be happening to her. Monroe navigates the subtleties of the character with a lot of grace under pressure which makes the performance more impactful as those around her don’t take her concerns seriously. It’s not loud or flashy like you’d see in a slasher flick, it’s everything she has to keep inside that really makes the performance. It is hard to say it’s a breakthrough performance, but It Follows was eight years about. Either way, it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen from an actress in a leading role this year. 

I can’t pinpoint it 100%, but I was diggin’ the look

There were a couple of other things that caught my eye as well. Firstly, I loved the costuming by Claudia Bunea. The clothing was comfortable, confident, and still stylish and stands out, especially against the relatively drab backdrop of Bucharest that is captured in some great shots by cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen. Even though Monroe is an attractive woman, there was no emphasis on making her a sexual object. There is a scene where she’s wearing a red, silk, or satin, one-piece nightgown (shown on the poster) but even that is a very reasonable choice. In contrast, the person she is fixated on (played unnervingly by the underrated Burn Gorman) is always wearing just the one, almost utilitarian outfit. 

Secondly, the music by Nathan Halpern nails the tone of this film. It’s creepy and lingering, focusing the intent in the right moments. I loved his score for Swallow, and he’s continuing to do excellent work. 

The only real issue I had came in the relationship between Julia and her husband, Francis, played by Karl Glusman. There is no precedent set during their introduction that suggests Julia is prone to paranoia, flights of fancy, or bouts of delusion. So, when his attitude towards her is dismissive, something isn’t lining up. The most he can muster is an obscene gesture and peeking around a corner at the suspect. At every other turn, he’s looking for reasons not to believe her and belittling her concern. It’s one thing if the background was in place, or if her concerns were really creating havoc for them as a couple but it’s almost like an inconvenience that he doesn’t care for. 

His body language, posture, and distance in the scene all speak volumes

I’m not married but I have been in a loving, supporting, committed relationship for five years and I felt for Julia when her partner wasn’t in her corner. Now that I step back from it, that’s likely by design, and any person that prioritizes their relationship over their work will see it. 

I really enjoyed it and found the horror elements to be much more effective than a couple of other films that were released in that genre over the same weekend. I actually felt scared for Julia because it approaches the fear from a psychological perspective. Chloe Okuno is really going to be one to watch. 

Recommendation: If you like psychological horror and creepy thrillers, this is one of the better ones I have seen recently.

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