When you're in a strange city, it can feel like everyone around you is staring, wondering what this interloper is doing in their space. At first, it seems like that's the problem for Watcher's protagonist Julia (Maika Monroe), an American who's moved with her Romanian-American husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), to Bucharest. Julia doesn't know anyone in this unfamiliar city, and she doesn't speak the language. There are vague references to her past career as an actress, but she appears aimless, searching for a new purpose in life. When she walks the streets alone while Francis is at work, she feels eyes on her everywhere.
But there's one particular set of eyes that bothers her the most. In the apartment building across the way, a lone man (Burn Gorman) seems to be staring into Julia's apartment every night. Later, she sees this man at a movie theater, and he then follows her into a supermarket. She tells Francis, she calls the police, and she gets access to the supermarket's security footage, but no one takes her concerns seriously. All her efforts only further isolate herself.
Writer-director Chloe Okuno builds on that feeling of isolation and invalidation for nearly the entire running time of Watcher, as Julia becomes more and more convinced she's in harm's way, even as the people around her remain dismissive. There's a serial killer dubbed "the Spider" who's been targeting women in Julia and Francis' neighborhood, but that too just becomes background noise and fodder for dinner conversation to everyone else.
Watcher is a slow-burn thriller, drawing suspense from simple glimpses of a bland-looking man standing with a shopping bag. Okuno showcases Bucharest well, and the Cold War-era architecture of the apartment buildings adds to the claustrophobic, oppressive feeling. Monroe gives a captivating performance, and Okuno uses the methodical pacing to her advantage. Even as viewers spend the entire movie alongside Julia, we still may have the lingering sense that she's just paranoid, that she's projecting her insecurities onto this creepy but ultimately harmless neighbor.
Okuno also puts viewers right alongside Julia by choosing not to subtitle any of the Romanian dialogue, so that the audience is just as lost as she is when she attempts to communicate. Her only friend and ally is her neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea), an exotic dancer who speaks perfect English and treats Julia with the compassion that everyone else seems to be lacking. Thanks to her job, Irina is used to having men's eyes on her, but that doesn't mean she's any less vulnerable than Julia is, or that she commands any more respect from the people around her.
Watcher's slow pace can be frustrating at times, especially as the story never takes any particularly unexpected turns. This isn't a movie about conspiracies or plot twists, but about a heightened version of an everyday experience for many women, and Okuno keeps it grounded even when ramping up the danger. Monroe conveys Julia's fear and frustration without becoming unhinged, and Glusman keeps Francis blandly reassuring despite his obvious condescension. Gorman, who's made a career of playing unsettling weirdos, is just as menacing standing silently in the background as he is when his character finally speaks to Julia.
Okuno directed the best segment of last year's anthology film V/H/S/94, a gonzo gross-out horror comedy with a crazy ending, and it's a bit disappointing that Watcher is so subdued. The tension builds in the same way over and over, and the payoff is cathartic but also somewhat underwhelming. Julia deserves better from the people in her life, but she deserves a little better from the movie, too. ♦Watcher