In Chloe Okuno’s stylish debut, “Watcher,” the title refers not just to one person but two: The watched becomes the watcher, the stalker and stalked swapping places throughout the course of this chilly psychological thriller. Working in the vein of ’70s-style horror, Okuno’s “Watcher” is in dialogue with films such as Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” nods to Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession” with its foreboding European setting, and features a Hitchcock blond in heroine Julia (Maika Monroe). But those films about vulnerable women caught in voyeuristic traps were all directed by men, and with Okuno, a female writer-director, telling the story, it’s a very different result, one that’s emotionally and ethically complex but undeniable in its bold clarity.
Newlyweds Julia and Francis (Karl Glusman) arrive in Bucharest, Romania, ready to start a new chapter in a new city. Francis, who is half-Romanian, has a high-powered advertising job, but Julia, an erstwhile actress, doesn’t have much to do. She wanders the city, practicing her halting Romanian in coffee shops and attempting to sightsee alone. As a serial killer known as “the Spider” slays the women of Bucharest, slashing their throats, Julia realizes she’s under surveillance, and not just from the taxi drivers who call her “beautiful.” Through the oversize picture windows in their apartment, she notices someone (Burn Gorman) across the street watching her, and suddenly he seems to be everywhere.
The brilliant thing about Julia in “Watcher” is she does everything right, and yet it’s maddening, because it doesn’t protect her. She tells her husband as soon as she feels uncomfortable about this man watching her, and reports the strange incidents when he follows her to shopkeepers and the police. But her actions, to the men around her, seem strange and sketchy. Francis just barely refrains from calling her crazy, though he refers to her experiences as “a fantasy” and capably rationalizes this stranger’s behavior. All Julia has the agency and ability to do is watch him back.
Okuno’s script, based on a screenplay by Zach Ford, is pointed, deliberately so, and there’s no mistaking what she’s trying to say about women’s intuition, the reluctance of men to believe them, and the systems of power that fail to protect the vulnerable. She beautifully uses space in her cinematic storytelling as well. The apartment’s glass windows become a prison panopticon, their visibility stripping the safety from Julia’s intimate domestic space. The transparency of the windows is juxtaposed against the opaque wall she shares with her neighbor and only friend, Irina (Madalina Anea), through which sound travels, transmitting muffled, mysterious information.
“Watcher” is a slow burn, but like its leading lady, it’s restrained and elegant. Monroe’s performance is less than operatic, but the strain of containing her fear and maintaining her composure is palpable. That, combined with the intelligent use of point-of-view shots (the cinematographer is Benjamin Kirk Nielsen), creates a visceral sense of the genuine, and specifically feminine, fear that Julia feels, whether it’s founded in reality or not. But the greatest trick that Okuno pulls off in “Watcher” is leading the audience to question our own intuition and interpretation of events, of what we’ve seen and heard. It throws the viewer off balance just enough that the finale is truly shocking, but rendered with the utmost control and refinement of style and emotion.
This beautifully crafted jewel of a throwback thriller signifies Okuno as a talent to watch, but furthermore, it pushes the viewer to question what, and who, we choose to believe and why.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: R, for some bloody violence, language, and some sexual material/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Starts June 3 in general release
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