Watcher wasn’t constructed with COVID in mind, but it might as well have been. On one level, this is an atmospheric little thriller that lights a fuse and lets it sizzle for most of the movie. Take a look below that, and you’ll find a meditation on loneliness and spiritual frustration–the very demons that descend during a global lockdown. When its main character dares to venture outside, she is surrounded by a world she doesn’t recognize, and a language she can’t speak. Isolation changes her, but it also warps the world around her.
The story (from a script by Zack Ford) is actually a fascinating riff on Rear Window, Hitchcock’s masterwork of suspense. That film had Jimmy Stewart laid up in a wheelchair, perched at the window of his apartment. In this abject boredom, the temptation to spy on his neighbors becomes too great. Here, Julia (Maika Monroe) finds herself on the other end of this nosy fascination. As she and her husband, Francis, (Karl Glusman) settle into a new apartment, Julia spots an ominous silhouette in a window across the street. A man (Burn Gorman) stands in perfect stillness, gazing into her bedroom for hours at a time.
It’s not long before this mystery dude broadens his campaign of creepiness. Julia soon spots him a few aisles away at the grocery store. Then, she sneaks into an empty movie theater–screening Hitch’s Suspicion, as luck would have it–he plops down in the seat behind her. This guy’s not exactly breaking the law, but that doesn’t make him any less frightening.
Julia’s alarm bells ring louder with the news of a serial killer in Bucharest. Known as “The Spider,” this psychopath has already beheaded several young women. One night, Julia and Francis walk past one of The Spider’s grisly crime scenes, not too far from their apartment. After that, she grows suspicious that he might be just the man they’re looking for.
Unfortunately, no one offers her much comfort. This includes Francis, who often responds to her concern with overt gaslighting. His skepticism spreads to the cops, who humor her testimony and politely dismiss her. Just when Julia feels like no one’s listening, she meets Irina (Mãdãlina Anea), the vivacious young woman next door. Irina offers a sympathetic ear and a few glasses of red wine, but we learn she may harbor a few secrets of her own.
Most of Watcher deals with Julia’s deteriorating mental state. With her acting career in limbo, she has moved to a foreign city, where many of the locals regard her with solemn contempt. When Julia ventures from her apartment, the streets resemble something from the deepest days of COVID: The sidewalks seem bereft of foot traffic; every train station, alleyway, and museum seems to echo with an eerie emptiness. It doesn’t take long to feel deep empathy for Julia’s isolation.
This empathy gets a boost from Monroe’s excellent performance. Her Julia begins as a bubbly, optimistic young woman who treats her new city as a new adventure. Over time, the strain of constantly defending her suspicions and dealing with her judgmental husband leaves Julia in a state of crestfallen exhaustion. Monroe plays this descent in an all-too believable way. Glusman effectively renders Francis as an insufferable dickhead trapped in a nice guy’s body. (Notice the scenes where he and his co-workers deliberately speak Romanian around Julia, just to make her feel excluded.) Gorman doesn’t have much dialogue, but even that tiny amount is bone-chilling.
For all the skill behind it, Watcher might be a bit slow and talky for some viewers. Even at 96 minutes, the story feels a smidge long. That said, director Chloe Okuno delivers a propulsive, white-knuckle payoff, for those willing to stick it out. The closing scenes greatly elevate the entire movie, and they will resonate even more in the time of COVID: After all, few things are more frightening than feeling completely alone.
96 min. R. On Demand.