Julia (It Follows’ Maika Monroe) has moved with husband Francis (Karl Glusman) from New York City for a new marketing job in Bucharest. Spending her days alone and struggling with the language barrier, Julia starts to feel that she is being spied on from the apartment opposite theirs. Her fears grow as several local women are found murdered, while her concerns are dismissed by an increasingly distant Francis.
Rooted at the centre of Watcher, writer-director Chloe Okuno uses the concept of perspective to craft both a gripping thriller and a fascinating study of patriarchal violence. Her directorial debut is a taut if predictable psychological thriller, somewhat in the mould of Rosemary’s Baby or The Tenant. There are shades, too, of Italian giallo – though Okuno’s chilly visual style is a world apart from the lurid gratuity of the films of Argento or Dallamano. The key difference, however, is that in a film about women who are killed by a voyeur, Watcher is told exclusively from the perspective of the next would-be victim.
Throughout the film, Okuno resists the temptation to switch perspective to the killer, breaking perhaps the one universal rule in serial killer cinema since Peeping Tom. Instead of relitigating tired debates over the ‘male gaze’, Okuno reframes voyeurism as a mirror; when Julia is gazed on, she gazes back. Indeed, menaced by the killer, dismissed by her husband and ignored by the police, Julia’s gaze is her only recourse to power, a reflection of the violence that is inflicted on her.
Okuno typically frames her shots at a distance with long lenses through windows, doorways or down hallways. In one scene, Julia watches herself on grainy CCTV as she searches for her stalker. Many of these shots superficially mimic typical killer POV shots, but rarely do they replicate the stalker’s actual perspective. Instead, they represent an imagined perspective projected externally by Julia; these shots are both a manifestation of her fear and an attempt to protect herself by exhaustively imagining all the hidden places from which the stalker could be watching her.
Julia is convinced that her neighbour in the building opposite hers (played with a chilling creepiness by Burn Gorman) is the man responsible for the local killings. In the film’s first two acts, it almost doesn’t matter whether he is the killer or not – the point being that she is rightly frightened by his strange behaviour, which her husband blithely dismisses. Predictably, the only person who is supportive is Julia’s next door neighbour, Irina (Madalina Anea), whose job as a sex worker has provided her with plenty of experience with voyeuristic creeps.
As a thriller, Watcher is entertaining despite a very predictable plot, with a conclusion that is both satisfying and unsurprising (though a late stage development involving Irina is disappointingly rote for a film otherwise so dedicated to undermining misogynistic cinematic tropes). Okuno’s Watcher is smart, engaging and intelligent, and it’s especially refreshing to see this sort of mid-budget, grown-up genre film getting a proper theatrical release.