If the camera lingered just a little more lasciviously on the opening sex scene, or if we got to ogle the bondage-clad ladies writhing in their glass booths in the underground strip club sequence longer, Chloe Okuno’s smart little feature debut might be said to herald the longed-for return of the lost, lamented erotic thriller. Without that skeevy edge, “Watcher” has to settle for a plain-vanilla “thriller” designation that doesn’t really do justice to its throwback qualities, nor to the enjoyable way it reworks its many cinematic references into an understatedly stylish commentary on modern womanhood, #NotAllMen and the latest incarnation of the concept of gaslighting.
There’s a little bit of “Repulsion” here, a dash of “Rear Window,” obviously, and an airy nod to “Lost in Translation,” but mostly “Watcher” plays in a less exalted sandbox. Its most overt homage is to 1993’s “Sliver,” with the key disclaimer that “Sliver,” already a terrible movie, would without the hilarious sex stuff be borderline unwatchable, and “Watcher” is actually pretty damn good. That’s thanks in large part to a terrific Maika Monroe, who gets the mature, psychologically rich showcase she’s fully earned with all the running and bleeding she’s done heretofore as a horror heroine.
Monroe plays Julie, an ex-actor happily married to half-Romanian Francis (Karl Glusman), with whom she has just arrived in Bucharest so that he can take up a promotion. Already in the taxi from the airport we’re put into Julie’s disoriented, struggling-to-keep-up point of view: Francis and the driver natter away in unsubtitled Romanian, of which Julie does not understand a word. To one salty remark, Francis takes offense, but, not for the last time, he translates a sanitized version for Julie’s ears. One of the cleverest aspects of the script, co-written by Okuno and Zack Ford, is the portrayal of Francis, who is not a bad guy and who genuinely loves Julie, but who condescends to her almost as a reflex.
Their spacious apartment has large windows that look onto dreary buildings nearby. Immediately, Julie notices a shadowy figure looking in at them from an apartment opposite, but her unease doesn’t flare into all-out alarm until she becomes convinced that the figure is the same man following her when she’s wandering the city while Francis is at work. News about a serial killer on the loose doesn’t help her mounting suspicions, which are a little allayed when she befriends her next-door neighbor, Irina (Mădălina Anea), and they agree to look out for each other. That, however, will be cold comfort to anyone who recognizes the “sexy brunet neighbor who becomes the new arrival’s only friend” trope from the aforementioned Sharon Stone vehicle, and guesses where that’s all heading.
Given the recycled archetypes and often predictable plotting, it takes quite some skill, and Nathan Halpern’s fine, suspenseful score, to preserve a sense of eeriness. Benjamin Kirk Nielsen’s unshowy photography is a stealth virtue here too, remaining in such a naturalistic register that the few jump scares land and the genre-mandated minimum of bloodletting is queasily effective. It also hides the joins of the trickery required to keep the sinister man’s identity fluid: His face is usually glimpsed in peripheral vision or backlit or in a hurried sidelong glance that stops fearfully short at his chin. His features are a permanent blur, like a hazy memory or an incomplete photofit, an uncanny effect that doesn’t fully dissipate even when we do get a good look at him (it helps that he’s played by Burn Gorman bringing Crispin Glover levels of weirdo realness).
Right from the start, we’re cued to wonder just who is stalking whom. Julie accuses the man of always being at his window, which she only knows because she’s always at hers. She follows him because she thinks he’s following her. When she finally gets a partial profile of him from CCTV footage she feels vindicated. “Look!” she says to Francis. “He’s staring right at me!” “Or maybe,” Francis replies, with the kind of reasonable-guy logic that makes you want to kick him in his reasonable, logical nuts, “he’s staring at the woman who’s staring at him?” Pretty soon, the tables have turned so many times it’s hard to remember which chalice the poison is in.
Except that this is 2022 and Okuno and the effortlessly relatable Monroe have invested too much in Julie’s perspective to betray her, and by extension every woman who’s ever been forced to wonder if she’s “just being hysterical.” The vulnerability Julie feels is an exaggerated version of a vulnerability recognizable to every woman who’s ever pretended to be on the phone on a walk home or gripped her keys in her hand on her way to her car. And her self-doubt is similarly an echo of the internal voice that shames us for overreacting when the danger passes. “Watcher,” if it has an agenda beyond being a fun, shivery, fish-out-of-water chiller, is not so much a manifesto to Believe All Women as it is a reminder to all women watching to at least believe ourselves.