Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher” is the former, and the best Competition film I’ve seen so far. With star Maika Monroe once again facing creeping dread, it will draw comparisons to “It Follows,” but the template here is more ‘70s European Paranoia Horror, films about people in new, uncomfortable places, ones where they may not be welcome. Sleek and effective, “Watcher” is an old-fashioned thriller with a modern heartbeat, an announcement of Okuno as a major talent to watch.
Watch as Okuno slinks and slides her cameras down the imposing halls of the apartment building occupied by Julia (Monroe) and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman). Her camera placement with cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen is spectacular, using low angles to make the very walls of Julia’s house feel somehow threatening without drawing too much attention to the technique. I love a filmmaker who understands how to turn a relatively mundane setting into an imposing one and that’s what Okuno does with this small corner of Budapest, where an average woman named Julia may be losing her mind.
At least that’s what the people around her try to convince her is happening. She looks out of the massive window of her large apartment and sees life going on normally in the building across from it except for one room in which it appears there’s a figure watching back. When Julia thinks she sees the same man (Burn Gorman) following her to a movie (she watches “Charade,” a classic that clearly inspired this project) and then to a grocery store, her panic rises, especially when she sees news reports about a serial killer named The Spider. Francis is never home because of his busy work schedule, allowing Julia’s fear to elevate with every passing day.
How afraid should we be? Is it paranoia or self-preservation? This is a question that women, especially when alone, simply have to ask more than men, and “Watcher” gets at this idea of calculating risk without overplaying that card. Unlike some Sundance 2022 films, its themes aren’t over-highlighted, allowed to be the smart backdrop to what is a very refined thriller. I think Monroe is under-directed a bit to be a bit too low-key, but it allows the film to feel more realistic than the exaggerated form of something like Giallo, which this easily could have been with just a few tonal shifts. The end feels a little rushed, but it’s effective, leaving “Watcher” as a tight, moody thriller that’s definitely (sorry) worth watching.
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