What Watcher (2022) should have been – that is engrossing vivisection of how paranoia messes with fact-based observations – quickly morphs into a tedious series of wasted opportunities and endless misfires.
Despite the simple premise, Watcher (2022) had the upper hand thanks to a rather unprecedented switch of shooting location – from New York to Bucharest. A by-product of the pandemic, such a twist provided debuting director Chloe Okuno with a unique setting for her thriller. Furthermore, the script had to be adapted to let the narrative benefit from the city’s eclectic architecture and Eastern Europe-vibe. As seen in the opening scene when Julia (Maika Monroe) is in a cab with her boyfriend Francis (Karl Glusman), the Romanian setting impacts the story to a large degree. Francis cracks a joke about a rude comment from the driver, which results in a flutter of fear in Julia who can’t speak the language. That way Okuno immediately sets the course for their relationship and paints a vivid picture of how alienated Julia will be in Bucharest – a stranger to local customs, language, and people.
As it turns out, this arrangement bodes well for Francis, for whom the relocation to Romania’s capital is a trip to the past and an opportunity to climb the corporate ladder. Yet for Julia, the shabby tenement houses and old facades of monumental buildings store no memories, nor do they promise a gratifying future. Instead, the overwhelming feeling of alienation creeps in and takes over. Julia wanders around aimlessly, bashing her head against the language barrier wherever she goes, up to the point when she notices that a strange guy seems to be following her.
Okuno spends an awful lot of time either glued to Julia’s shoulders or stuck in between Julia and Francis’ relationship that tumbles down at a stunning pace. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Glusman and Monroe is non-existent. Which, frankly, could be a purposeful choice for the plot, but one that creates a tedious experience for the viewers.
Furthermore, Monroe – whose appetite for meatier roles is written all over Watcher (2022) – deserved a worthier companion than Glusman. The actor struggles to portray the neglectful macho with skin-thin care for his loved one. Most of their interactions ring hollow, and some of the writing by Zack Ford mercilessly butchers the arthouse efforts of Chloe Okuno too. Both actors struggle with repetitive scenes that don’t push the story forward. Moreover, Ford insists on throwing Julia under the same trains, forcing Monroe to work with little variety.
Occasionally the director does get off the tiger’s back. In one scene, Francis invites his friends over to dinner, and in a manner of Jack Reynor’s character in Midsommar (2019), he indirectly demeans Julia by omitting the topic of the conversation – obviously all in Romanian. So, left to her own growing paranoia, Julia desperately seeks a friendly face. And if you didn’t know, Bucharest doesn’t feel even a tad welcoming since most of its citizens are creeps or elderly who seem to be slightly off.
The only light in the dark is a neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea) – the only person who might aid Julia’s loneliness routine. As revealed during that same dinner scene, Bucharest is shaken by a series of brutal killings, suspected to be the work of a killer nicknamed the Spider. Is the killer following Julia around? Or maybe it’s her overwhelming insecurity crushed by the accumulation of negative emotions?
Undeniably, there is an overall sense of a noose tightening around the neck of our protagonist. Through multiple layers of cultural alienation, personal troubles, and the killer-on-the-loose ghost looming from afar, Chloe Okuno has more than a decent setup for a fine-tuned thriller. To an extent, these gears are oiled and whirring.
The director puts the setting to good use too. Bucharest feels intimidating, with its grand-scale buildings and dark alleys. There’s also the case of bleak, washed-off color palette, reminding of the same visual aesthetic that made Ozark stand out. Maika Monroe abandons her screaming-girl past from It Follows (2014) and embraces the role with a far more internalized performance, and if only the script didn’t insist on throwing her character into the same problems every few minutes, this would be a truly memorable work.
But the dreadful aura doesn’t hold that long, for Chloe Okuno directs Watcher (2022) with too much plotting around a super-predictable twist. And when it finally unravels, you know the ride – while seldom entertaining – wasn’t eventually worth the struggle.