On its face, Watcher is a fairly conventional narrative about a woman and a possible stalker in the apartment across the road. But director Chloe Okuno has more on her mind than Repulsion-like “woman alone going crazy” vibes, or even Rear Window‘s audience-indicting voyeurism. Okuno is more concerned with one simple message: believe women. Her heroine Julia (Maika Monroe) never doubts her suspicions and fears, and never has to, because every man around her is there to do that for her. The differences between how men and women perceive threats are always forefront in Okuno’s narrative, a (mis-)understanding gap she literalizes by relocating the American Julia to Bucharest, where her inexperience with the Romanian surroundings reiterates the differences in the metaphorical languages spoken by the sexes.
Julia is there thanks to her Romanian-American husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), whose bilingual skills just scored him a big job in the country’s capital. He has to translate for her; she in turn must trust that the few locals who do speak some English mean her no harm. But when a serial killer of young women strikes the area, it’s easy for her to see danger everywhere. Especially when a shadowy figure in the big building keeps staring into their apartment window every night.
When Julia and Francis first enter their new place, it’s at night, the main light doesn’t work, and it looks a dingy beige. Come morning, in full light of day, everything’s a clean white. It’s an easy visual shorthand for how ridiculous nighttime fears may seem once exposed to sunlight. And indeed, for a while we simply see Julia hang around the apartment, or walk around town. A viewer might imagine that this was simply a convenient, low-budget way to make a movie, by just filming one actress alone in an Airbnb.
But a couple of shots that pull back and out from the living-room window suggest something more is up. For a moment, our point of view is that of a watcher, if not necessarily the precise one of the title. Monroe, with her classic beauty and platinum blonde hair, is the sort of actress people like to watch onscreen, whether she’s not doing much of anything significant, or having jeans-on sex with Francis on the couch. It’s okay, because she’s an actress in a movie, and watching is what we’re meant to do. But what if she weren’t, yet a voyeur wholeheartedly believed otherwise?
After some tense near-encounters with a fellow (Burn Gorman) who uncomfortably resembles the shape in the window, Julia makes the bad decision to secretly follow him, hoping to learn more in order to confirm her suspicions. Audiences who like to yell at characters in horror movies will have ample opportunity to do so. But when the story later makes clear that none of her missteps likely changed the course of events, Okuno seizes upon those revelations to critique the audience for blaming the victim. When Julia’s English-speaking neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea), who conveniently keeps Chekhov’s gun in her coffee table, advises that “having to live with the uncertainty” is the best-case treatment for paranoia, it sounds like good therapy. But a movie on Shudder is not going to let anyone do that.
Gorman, recently seen as the not-Charlie Day scientist in the Pacific Rim movies and a fascist villain on Paramount+’s Hello, often plays characters so cheesy they deserve their own Arby’s sandwich. Here, his unusual appearance—funny lookin’ in a general sort of a way, as the characters in Fargo might say—does most of the work, as the actor remains very still and mostly silent. There’s no wasted movement there, and as such, no signals to safely interpret regarding his intentions. It’s not like the movie offers up any other major suspects, but the man’s intense eyes, relative short stature and withdrawn nature manage to communicate both a to women and a lack of danger to bigger dudes who might threaten think they could easily kick his ass.
While the movie at first inconsistently uses creepy soundscapes sporadically, eliciting suspense when all is quiet, that choice eventually makes sense too. Nobody can be worried 24-7 and stay sane, and some moments get creepier than others. Eventually, the camera makes sure that we share Julia’s sense of when she’s being watched, to the point that we don’t doubt it when it exposes what there is to fear.
Without spoiling, this is one movie where it’d be extremely interesting to know what happens five minutes after the final scene. But while the subsequent events may be up for vigorous debate, the film’s message is crystal clear: Screw you if you ever doubted a woman afraid for her safety. Here’s hoping it sticks.