Watcher Review: A Slow-Burn Thriller Short On Actual Thrills [Sundance 2022]

Have you ever had the feeling that you're being watched? Julia sure does. In "Watcher," Julia (Maika Monroe) has moved to Bucharest with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman), setting the stage for a serious of troubling events. Francis' work has brought them here, which means he spends long hours away from their apartment while Julia, jobless, is stuck waiting around in a city she doesn't know, full of people speaking a language she doesn't understand. And gosh, it sure seems like the mysterious, shadowy figure who lives in the apartment building across the street is watching her. 

Chloe Okuno's "Watcher" is choked with atmosphere, using the frequently empty, frequently wet, snowy Bucharest streets to convey a sense of dread. Everything here feels both lived-in and rotting; a world of cracked concrete with a real sense of decay. Julia wanders about, a pale figure cutting through the gloom, and everywhere she goes, someone seems to be following. Julia can't prove it, exactly, but she's convinced a strange man she keeps seeing (played by Burn Gorman) is the figure in the adjacent apartment who keeps watching her. Whenever she goes to the window, the figure seems to be there, shrouded in silhouette. Francis tries to belay Julia's fears by stating that the person in the window could just be, well, a person in a window. Nothing more, nothing less. There's nothing sinister about looking out a window, right? And yet, one night, Julia gazes out her own window and raises her hand in a wave – and the person across the street waves back.

Julia wanders into a mostly empty theater, only to have someone sit directly behind her, breathing heavily. Julia: I can relate. I've been to mostly empty movie theaters many times, only to have my heart sink as some weirdo comes and sits right next to me even though he (it's always a he) has the entire theater to pick and choose from. But that doesn't mean something dangerous is afoot, right? Well ... I should mention that there's a serial killer on the loose in Bucharest.

Nicknamed the Spider (for reasons that are never explained), the killer has already cut one woman's throat and decapitated another, and Julia's frantic mind puts the pieces together and assumes that the guy across the street and the guy following her around town must be the Spider, too. There's no other explanation. Right? Or maybe Julia is just paranoid. But as the saying goes: just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean they're not out to get you. 

Mood and Atmosphere

"Watcher" recalls films like "Rosemary's Baby" — stories of women alone in big cities, convinced that dark forces are aligning against them while their friends and family accuse them of being hysterical. Francis, who seems to be a rather bad husband, has no patience for Julia's claims. He tries to be supportive for approximately ten seconds before immediately assuming Julia is imagining things. As far as Francis sees things, Julia is simply lonely and afraid of their new city and allowing her troubled thoughts to get the better of her. 

But Julia will not be swayed. She keeps trying to prove she's correct, and that the watcher is bad news. And ... well, that's it, really. The most remarkable thing about "Watcher" is how slight it is. While I wouldn't call this film boring, it doesn't add up to much until a big climax. The impression one gets is that director Okuno assumes that the film's scenery will do all the heavy lifting. In other words, this is a thriller that thinks mood and atmosphere are a substitute for genuine thrills. And they're not. They can get you halfway there, but there needs to be something more. Instead, we're treated to scene after scene of Julia growing alarmed, telling people what she's alarmed about, and then having those people eye her warily. Over and over again. 

Monroe is adequate as the troubled Julia, but she's not given much to work with. Gorman, as the mysterious man who may or may not be the watcher (and the Spider) fairs a bit better, particularly in a late scene in which he and Julia have a conversation and he makes a fairly convincing case for his innocence — all while still seeming just a little too strange, too creepy, for his own good. The film itself is awash in a gold and gray color scheme; lights never seem bright enough, and large portions of rooms are awash in shadow. And the unsubtitled dialogue of the characters around Julia does a fine job of making Julia feel all the more alone. It's all appropriately eerie and off-putting, but never quite as satisfying as it should be. Watching "Watcher" isn't a complete disappointment, but it sure would be nice if there was just a little more to look at.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10