Alex Garland’s new horror flick “Men” has received attention for its surreal take on toxic masculinity.
Now along comes Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher” (R, 91 minutes, in theaters), which is leaner, meaner and a lot scarier while dealing with related subject matter.
Maika Monroe (“It Follows”) plays Julia, an American who has relocated to Bucharest, where hubby Francis (Karl Glusman) has just been transferred as part of a job promotion. They move into an apartment, where Julia is mostly left alone. Francis works long hours – causing a neighbor to remark, “Working at 10 p.m.? Is he a stripper?” – and Julia, who has no friends in Romania and doesn’t speak the language, spends most of her time waiting for him to come home.
If only that were her only problem.
A serial killer known as “The Spider” is on the loose in their neighborhood. He has a nasty habit of decapitating his female victims. Julia discovers that a man living in the building across the street stands in the shadows by his window, staring into her apartment – watching her. Later, when she leaves the apartment to shop for groceries or to see a movie, she sees him following her. She ducks around corners, she hides, she runs away.
When she tells Francis about it, he says he wants to be supportive, but he’s obviously skeptical, to say the least. A policeman comes over, but he clearly suspects she’s overreacting, too.
Is Julia paranoid? Is the watcher (Burn Gorman) the killer, or merely a voyeur? Will someone else turn out to be a villain: Francis (those long hours), his obnoxious co-worker, the English-speaking female neighbor who befriends Julia, the neighbor’s sometimes boyfriend?
As you wait for the big reveal, director Okuno, making her full-length feature debut, builds suspense in true Hitchcockian fashion. You feel you’re right there with Julia, sharing her fear as the scenes intensify.
And then it hits you (later than sooner if you’re as slow as yours truly): This must be how women often feel when alone in, say, a city, whether unfamiliar or not, aware that, at any moment … well, that something horrific could occur. You can feel Julia’s vulnerability, her feeling of being at risk. And then you see how those feelings are dismissed as hysterics caused by an overactive imagination – or a need for attention. “Watcher,” ultimately, can be seen as a powerful metaphor for the fear of rape.
Unlike Garland’s “Men,” though, where the story seems constructed to serve the message, “Watcher,” far superior, puts the story first, with the underlying message coming across in a more natural, less contrived way. It’s first and foremost a potent thriller, but with depth and meaning. Alfred Hitchcock would be proud to call it one of his own. ***½
** Click here for Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **
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Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He also teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.