As a young woman, when I’m alone and I see a random man staring at me, a lot goes through my head: Is he actually staring at me? Maybe he’s looking at something else? Nope, it’s me. I hope he doesn’t say anything to me. Or hurt me. He could be perfectly normal. Or he could murder me. Am I being paranoid right now? He’s just staring, and staring is harmless, right?
Chloe Okuno injects this exact fear into her feature directorial debut, “Watcher,” leaving the audience to experience that terror firsthand through Julia (Maika Monroe), who believes she is being watched and stalked by a man (Burn Gorman) from a neighboring apartment building. It doesn’t help that Julia, an American, has just moved to Bucharest, doesn’t speak the language and her husband and only translator, Francis (Karl Glusman), is constantly at work, leaving her alone all day. On top of that, there’s a serial killer murdering young women in the area, grounding her fears in a horrifying reality. Even though Francis tries to help her, Julia doesn’t have much evidence of being watched beyond her intuition, so he eventually dismisses her as paranoid.
The film opens with Julia and Francis in a cab on their way to their new apartment. Francis and the taxi driver chat in Romanian, while Julia has no idea what they’re saying. There are no subtitles, forcing us into Julia’s shoes as the outsider, confused and dependent on Francis’ often half-hearted translations. The driver looks at Julia through the rearview mirror, commenting on her beauty and reminding us of the male gaze that she, as a woman, is constantly subjected to.
Their apartment is spacious and pristinely decorated, but Julia feels uneasy in this new and unfamiliar environment. She becomes preoccupied with the man she believes is watching her from his window, and the large windows of her apartment turn her home into a panopticon. Cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen‘s wide shots of Julia, both in her apartment and through her window, create a chilling though elegant, voyeuristic atmosphere. These angles, combined with occasional Julia POV shots, keep us on edge alongside Julia.
Julia doesn’t feel safe in the picturesque streets of Bucharest either when she notices a man, who she believes could be the same man from the window, is following her. In this particularly tense sequence, Julia ducks into a movie theater to escape him, and he follows her in, sitting in the seat right behind her. Horrified, she rushes out of the theater and enters a grocery store where she sees the man again. These simple yet effective scenes perfectly capture the horror of the female experience, especially when coupled with Monroe’s palpable performance. The male characters like Francis then write off these occurrences as coincidence or miscommunication, highlighting the biting reality that women are not trusted as credible sources of their own lives.
The only person who really understands Julia’s fears is her nextdoor neighbor, Irina (Madalina Anea), who validates her, claiming it’s better to be safe than sorry. The two young women promise that they will look out for each other. This moment of female solidarity offers the only glimpse of hope and comfort in the entire film.
Desperate to end her terror, Julia begins to watch the man back, following him around the city. Now stalking him, she momentarily has control and subverts the male gaze. Still, it is clear who has the power when the man sees Julia, and she cowers under his gaze. Julia becomes increasingly consumed with fear, straining her relationship with Francis and angering neighbors who find her both disruptive and hysterical. This causes Julia to question her own reality, making us wonder if maybe she really is paranoid and overreacting like Francis says. However, Julia can’t get past her intuition that she is in danger.
The same night I saw “Watcher,” I was walking through a grocery store parking lot with my roommate when we noticed a man staring at us. We tried to ignore him, but he abruptly moved towards us as if he was going to lunge at us. He mumbled something as my roommate and I speed-walked into the store. In this moment, I was transported into the fear I felt sitting in the theater, watching Julia hide from the man at the grocery store — the same fear my female friends and I have experienced and talked about together since middle school. Okuno clearly knows this fear well and has a lot to say about it. “Watcher” is a captivating and thrilling addition to female-directed horror that truly captures the everyday terrors that come with being a woman.
“Watcher” is now showing in theaters.
By Emily Ince