by George Wolf
If you’re a fan at all of genre films, chances are good Watcher will look plenty familiar. But in her feature debut, writer/director Chloe Okuno wields that familiarity with a cunning that leaves you feeling unnerved in urgent and important ways.
Maika Monroe is sensational as Julia, an actress who has left New York behind to follow husband Francis (Karl Glusman) and begin a new life in Bucharest. With a mother who was Romanian and a fluent grasp on the language, Francis instantly feels at home.
Julia does not, and her feelings of vulnerability are compounded by her trouble communicating, the news reports of a serial killer, her husband’s late nights at the office…and the man in the window across the street (the effortlessly creepy Burn Gorman) who is constantly watching her.
And as soon as Julia makes accusations, the games begin.
Is the watcher really a threat? Is he stalking Julia, or is she the one who’s following him?
None of these beats are new, and as events escalate, others are pretty clearly telegraphed. But it’s the way Okuno (who helmed the impressive “Storm Drain” segment from V/H/S /94) slowly twists the gaslighting knife that makes the film’s hair-raising chills resonate.
She finds a perfect conduit in Monroe, who emits an effectively fragile resolve. The absence of subtitles helps us relate to Julia immediately, and Monroe never squanders that sympathy, grounding the film at even the most questionably formulaic moments.
Even as Julia pleads to be believed, the mounting indignities create a subtle yet unmistakable nod to a culture that expects women to ignore their better judgment for the sake of being polite.
And from the friendly bystander who jokes about the creeper’s “crush” to Francis’s weak-willed humoring, Okuno envelopes Julia in male gazes that carry threats of varying degrees, all building to a bloody and damn satisfying crescendo.