Watcher Offers an Elegant Exploration of Female Paranoia

Watcher Offers an Elegant Exploration of Female Paranoia
Julia (Maika Monroe) follows the man she thinks has been following her. (Image: Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

A young couple moves from New York to Bucharest for the husband’s big promotion — he’s half-Romanian, speaks the language, and is immediately pulled into a busy schedule. The wife is left to spend her days alone, feeling out of place, and becoming more and more fixated on the man across the street who’s always staring out his window. Staring… at her?

That’s the set-up for 2022 Sundance Film Festival selection Watcher, the first feature from Chloe Okuno, who also co-wrote with Zack Ford; Okuno’s other credits include writing and directing the “Storm Drain” segment in last year’s Shudder hit V/H/S/94, which means she’s the one who came up with the movie’s rallying cry of “Hail Raatma!” But there’s nothing so fanciful as a sewer creature in Watcher, a movie whose threats are all too human, emphasis on the man. That goes for the man across the street (The Expanse’s Burn Gorman, who has the perfect “sinister without doing anything in particular” face); Francis (Devs’ Karl Glusman), the Romanian-American husband of main character Julia (It Follows’ Maika Monroe), whose clueless disregard for his wife’s loneliness turns to annoyance as she begins to mentally crumble; the police officer who thinks Julia is wasting his time; and the serial killer known as “the Spider” who’s been prowling Bucharest, decapitating women in their apartments, and grabbing sensational headlines as a result.

Watcher doesn’t break much new ground narratively, but it does deftly blend the idea of feeling completely out of place in a foreign country (sure, most people speak English, but Julia still feels overwhelmed by the language barrier — particularly when Francis and his colleagues carelessly exclude her from their conversations) with Rear Window-meets-Rosemary’s Baby themes of voyeurism and surveillance, as well as paranoia that may or may not be based on anything concrete. It’s hard not to side with Julia, especially since she’s played by the appealing Monroe, and because we take her point of view as she beings to suspect that the staring man has begun following her to the movies, through supermarket aisles, and on the subway. Is it just coincidental because they are neighbours, as Francis suggests, or is there something legitimately alarming afoot?

Julia does make one key connection as her otherwise isolated life begins to fall apart: her next-door neighbour Irina (Madalina Anea), whose job as a peep-show dancer only underlines Watcher’s obsession with the male gaze, and whose shared experiences as a woman dealing with creepers helps ground Julia’s fears. At one point Julia asks her if she sounds paranoid, and Irina replies that it’s better to sound paranoid than to be murdered as the ultimate “I told you so.” You’ll likely work out where Watcher is heading before it gets there, but its commitment to building dread never lets up, and it will absolutely inspire you to draw all the shades in your house. Immediately.