Julia (Maika Monroe) is outside her comfort zone. The American just moved to Bucharest with her part-Romanian husband Francis (Karl Glusman), who accepted a demanding new job there. With Francis away for much of the day, and not knowing the language or anyone around her, Julia’s isolation soon transforms into paranoia when a serial killer known as the Spider strikes near her apartment, and she gets the feeling that she’s being watched everywhere she goes- including by a shadowy figure looming in the building across the street.
Chloe Okuno’s feature directorial debut “Watcher,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is a melting pot of elements familiar to most stories exploring voyeurism. Zack Ford’s screenplay heads toward a moderately predictable finale after probing the question of who is really being watched and who is doing the watching in a curious manner that suggests a more twisty turn of events. But what really makes “Watcher” compelling is the one-two punch of Okuno’s direction and Monroe’s lead performance. Filming on location in Bucharest, Okuno makes great use of the space, transforming mundane located from supermarkets to train stations to empty streets and the hallway where Julia’s apartment is situated into dark and eerie places where potential danger lurks around every corner. Monroe, meanwhile, effectively conveys the combination of doubt and fear that consumes Julia for the bulk of the film, at times prompting even the viewer to question the reliability of her perspective. That is, until those feelings are usurped in the grisly finale by a strength and confidence in her instincts. It’s further pulled together by a chilling turn from Burn Gorman as the supposed watcher, his ability to tap into a quiet type that can masquerade either as an everyman or someone more sinister serving his character perfectly.
One thing that “Watcher” does really well, even when it feels more subtly uneasy than outright tense or scary, is convey the ways both big and small that women are frequently undermined. No one believes Julia that she has a stalker, not the police, not the grocery store clerk, and not her husband, whose initial concern transforms to disdain. Francis’ attitude carries beyond the stalker; he frequently speaks to his colleagues in Romanian in front of Julia knowing full well that she doesn’t know the language, and then declines to translate for her, essentially talking about her right in front of her face. Witnessing all the microagressions Julia has endured up to that point, and the refusal to turn Julia into a victim, just makes the finale that much sweeter.
”Watcher” will be releases in theaters on June 3 and be available to watch on demand on June 21. Runtime: 96 minutes. Rated R.
Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.