There’s a good reason why he was recognized as the ‘Master of Suspense’. Years after his death, Alfred Hitchcock’s influence on thriller and horror genres hasn’t waned. Identifying the most influential movie from his filmography is pretty daunting stuff. But Rear Window has inspired countless thrillers (and horror movies) from Fright Night to Disturbia. Following up on her well-received segment from last year’s V/H/S/94, Chloe Okuno gives a nod to Hitchcock for her directorial debut, Watcher. Starring Maika Monroe, Watcher mixes a fish-out-of-water story with Rear Window’s themes of paranoia and voyeurism. If critical responses are any indication, Okuno has scored a big hit with her first feature-length effort
When Julie, a failed actress, moves to Bucharest with her husband, she’s immediately a fish out of water. Unable to speak the language and stuck spending most of her time along in their apartment, she notices a neighbour watching her from an adjacent apartment window. Soon Julie thinks the same man is following her wherever she goes. And when she sees a news story about a serial killer preying on women in the city, Julia believes her stalker may be the same man.
Watcher Overcomes Familiarity With Well-Crafted Suspense
Aside from its more lurid serial killer story and contemporary setting, Watchers plays out as a surprisingly old-fashioned thriller. Writer and director Chloe Okuno closely adheres to the Rear Window formula and often feels like a 90s psychological thriller. But if Okuno takes few risks with formula she compensates with lush filmmaking that exploits the thriller’s setting and evokes the isolation felt by its protagonist. Things unfold methodically – Okuno wants audiences to invest in a slow burn. However, when Watchers does turn up the dial on suspense, Okuno shows quite a flair for it. Perhaps the standout scene in Watchers unfolds in a movie theater with no dialogue. Another later scene on subway similarly shows how Okuno finds suspense from subtle interactions.
But if Okuno takes few risks with formula she compensates with lush filmmaking that exploits the thriller’s setting and evokes the isolation felt by its protagonist.
For all its style and quietly effective moments of suspense, Watcher burns very slowly. This isn’t to suggest that Okuno struggles pacing the story over its runtime. On the contrary, Okuno crafts a purposeful study of paranoia and fear that draws audiences into the story and firmly holds that attention. While the climax doesn’t deviate from expectations – there aren’t many surprises here – it’s not lacking for tension. Once Okuno puts Julia in serious danger, Watcher becomes almost unbearably suspenseful. If there’s a complaint it’s that this suspense and tension resolves itself too quickly. After such a slow build up, Okuno ends things abruptly before the credits roll. One can’t help but feel that Watcher leaves something on the table.
Watcher Anchored by Compelling Protagonist and Villain
In addition to the thriller’s style and slow-burn suspense, Maika Monroe (It Follows, Tau) turns in an excellent performance that digs into the paranoia at the heart of Watcher. Simply put, Watcher doesn’t work as a thriller if we don’t doubt ‘Julia’s’ fear on some level. Ultimately, anyone familiar with the narrative will know how things will likely turn out. But Monroe adds depth, vulnerability, and resolve to ensure a layered, compelling character. Perhaps what’s missing is a bit about Julia herself in Okuno’s screenplay. Though Okuno hints at Julia’s failed career as an actress, where or how it connects to the central plot never feels fleshed out. It’s something that is really missed in the movie’s more quiet moments.
But Monroe adds depth, vulnerability, and resolve to ensure a layered, compelling character.
As for the movie’s titular ‘watcher’, Burn Gorman (Game of Thrones, The Dark Knight Rises) perfectly meets any prerequisites for this type of villain. On one hand, Gorman looks benign in most of his appearances – the kind of person you may walk by without noticing. But he also brings a quiet intensity to the role. Gorman often exudes menace and an underlying rage through just his eyes. That is, the contrast between his calm exterior and what his eyes communicate heightens the tension. Maybe Gorman’s ‘watcher’ spends too much time in the background. But it’s a creative decision that keeps Watcher firmly focused on the thriller’s central mystery – is Julia in danger or is she just paranoid? And villains are usually scarier when their motives remain ambiguous.
Watcher May Burn Too Slowly, But Still Delivers a Stylish Thriller
Though we’ve seen Rear Window adapted numerous times, Watcher manages to make the concept fresh. Yet it’s also being an unabashedly old-fashioned thriller. Okuno crafts some genuinely effective moments of suspense. Moreover, Watcher is a beautifully filmed thriller that shows off Okuno’s mastery of the craft. What holds the movie back, however, is its devotion to the formula itself. That is, Okuno doesn’t deviate much from standard thriller expectations. Arguably, there’s some depth missing from the story to fill those slower moments. And its slow-burn build may build too slowly, which is exacerbated by a finale that ends all too abruptly.