Sundance 2022: Watcher Falters in Incongruent Polanski Inspired Thriller

Image Courtesy of The Sundance Institute

There seems to be a resurgence lately surrounding the suspiciousness of our neighbors. COVID may be to blame for the sudden uptick in Rear Window-inspired Hitchcockian paranoia, giving us last year’s The Voyeurs and perhaps justifying a social exposé in our trust issues with the world around us. Watcher is another film about looking past the curtains into the eyes of others’ lives, only this time, the protagonist is the one being blatantly watched. Watcher is an uncomfortable film, and it’s meant that way. And it’s a cautionary tale of what happens when we don’t listen to that voice inside our head telling us something isn’t right. 

After moving to Bucharest with her fiancé Francis (The Neon Demon‘s Karl Glusman), Julia (The Guest‘s Maika Monroe) begins experiencing an indescribable feeling of having eyes on her. Women are likely to know that feeling better than men, and Francis disregards her escalating feelings, leaving her alone in an empty apartment all day and most nights as he tries to get ahead at work. When one of their neighbors is found dead, a psychopath serial killer is thought to be on the loose, and Julia’s senses intensify.  

A news report from a surviving victim of a similar attack speaks to the threatening experience of feeling stalked when no one is there. Julia begins to experience the phenomena described, filling the approaching scenes in Watcher with nervous tension, a feat that comes easily to the It Follows star. She ducks into a movie theater and momentarily relaxes, but as a patron sits behind her, the feeling swells up again, and she feels chased when she begins to see him wherever she goes. She starts believing this man (Crimson Peak‘s Burn Gorman) is the killer the police have been searching for and that she is his next target.  

Julia’s neighbor, Irina (Madalina Anea), proves to be the only person willing to listen and offer the support and friendship Julia lacks from her fiancé. Francis instills this feeling of hyperbolic hysteria over Julia when, in reality, she’s only responding to the fight or flight responses triggered by her environment. Francis begins as a well-intentioned stand-up character, valiantly asking the taxi driver to go easy as the couple makes their way from the airport to their new home. But, as we get to know this couple’s relationship better, it becomes apparent that he often picks battles he thinks he can win. Francis prioritizes work over the deteriorating feeling of safety Julia needs in this grand transition she’s made to join him on the other side of the world. She even starts learning Romanian to surprise him. 

Julia looks out her apartment window

I love Burn Gorman. I’ve been a fan ever since he played Owen Harper on Torchwood. His range is underrated, teetering between heroes, villains, and everything in between. He’s a perfect casting choice for the despondent Weber in Watcher because he can portray a calm introvert or dial-up Willem Dafoe-level mania if needed. This affects the atmosphere of ‘is he or isn’t he a serial killer’ as Julia begins stalking Weber to find out more. 

There were moments I wished Julia would just leave, maybe not to America, but anywhere. While that may seem reasonable, you have to consider the situation of someone in a bad domestic relationship completely isolated from anyone they know. While it seems the obvious call to make, you’re dealing with a stalker who has experience. Whether she decides to stay at a Motel 6 or attempts to head back to the States, there’s no guarantee she isn’t pursued. Also, with no evidence as to who the killer is and the constant downplaying of her feelings, Julia only becomes more uncertain of Weber. 

For as suffocatingly uncomfortable as Watcher gets, it never navigates into the claustrophobic panic of the movies that inspired it. Considering the pervasive references to Roman Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy,” I anticipated a more pulse-pounding affair. Juia is a modern replication for Catherine Deneuve’s Carol from Repulsion, moving to a new city and having nightmares of terrible violence that fuel her anxiety-ridden days. References to The Tenant are felt in Julia’s insecurities toward the landlord while her neighbors’ and fiancé’s dismissiveness are drawn from the gaslighting in Rosemary’s Baby. Mia Farrow’s realization that “this is really happening” manifests when Julia’s premonitions of violence eventually reach her doorstep. 

The Sundance films I saw on day two all had a centralized theme involving inclusion and representation. After the tear explosion that was After Yang, I wasn’t the same the rest of the day. When I got to Watcher, I felt the script had been flipped a little. Julia’s feelings are valid given the state of chaos in the world around her, but I was honestly expecting an entirely different outcome from the one delivered, one more tuned to the archetype of American prejudices, stemming from the distress of Julia living in a country where she’s always alone, unable to communicate, and making life a living hell for the face she’s chosen to depict the killer. 

Chloe Okuno’s (V/H/S/94) film, written by Zack Ford and Okuno, plays it as a straight thriller instead, with the moral of the story asking ladies to trust their intuition about bad situations. While I enjoyed the parts of the movie that played like the suspense films of the Hitchcock or Polanski era, there are moments of peril but no sense of persisting excitement. The pressure is repeatedly alleviated before getting to the final scenes. Also, while every performance in the film is fantastic, I wasn’t swayed by Francis as a character. Why is an independent badass like Julia with this guy who can’t trust what she says and doesn’t prioritize her safety? The divide between the couple becomes as vast as the space between the continents they traveled across to get here.  

Watcher will have one more virtual showing at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan 23, with a 24-hour window beginning at 10 AM EST. 

Looking for more horror from Sundance Film Festival 2022? We’ve got you:

“Sundance 2022: Emergency Is Gripping Social Horror”

“Sundance 2022: You Won’t Be Alone Is Ambitious Yet Disconnected”

“Sundance 2022: Speak No Evil and Modern Manners”

“Sundance 2022: Dual Is a Dark Comedy for Lanthimos Fans”

“Sundance 2022: Fresh Is Cannibalistic Fun You’ll Just Devour”

“Sundance 2022: Master Achieves High Honors”

“Sundance 2022: Resurrection Is a Dread-Soaked Psychological Nightmare”

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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