Film & Television

‘Watcher’: Elegant Thriller, Feminist Cautionary Tale

Last week, a young mother was killed on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She was shot, point blank, in the head on Lexington Avenue and 95th Street. She was pushing her three-month-old baby in a stroller at the time.

At first, this story might serve as another argument that our country needs firmer gun control. Or, it might be more evidence that New York’s streets are riddled with post-pandemic mental illness. But, the truth is something worse. This random act of violence wasn’t actually random. The young woman knew her assailant and had been the victim of domestic abuse at his hands while she was pregnant with his child six months earlier. She had done everything she could, calling the police for help “numerous times,” and eventually moving out of her mother’s into a women’s shelter to avoid him. “He threatened me with death, my daughter with death, and my other daughter with death,” her mother remembers. “No one protected my daughter, and now she’s dead.”  

Women’s intuition is too easily discounted by authority (which typically skews male). But, research conducted by Psychology Today a decade ago showed that women were indeed better at picking up non-verbal cues and interpreting emotional signals. Whether this is a skill that should be attributed to nurture (women historically have had less social power and had to fine-tune their empathic abilities) or nature (women are biologically caregivers and must interpret their not-yet-verbal children’s needs) is probably debatable. But, the take-away is most definitely this. 

Women, listen to your gut.

In Watcher, the thrilling and elegant feature debut from director Chloe Okuno, heroine Julie (Maika Monroe) listens to her gut despite belittlement from her husband, his colleagues, and the Bucharest police. With no support, she navigates a new life in a strange city as the threat she alone keenly feels draws ever closer.

Julie, a New York actress, has moved to Romania because of her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) and his important new marketing job. He’s half Romanian and feels at home instantly, joking with taxi drivers, drinking with coworkers, spending long hours at the office, and days away servicing clients. Meanwhile, Julie wanders about, sipping coffee and trying to learn the basics of the language. Much of the film is in Romanian, and Okuno wisely eschews subtitles. We feel Julie’s confusion, isolation, and eventual paranoia firsthand.

The newlyweds have a sprawling loftlike apartment with windows taking up entire walls of their bedroom and living space. They look across to another apartment building and it’s in a window there that Julie first sees the figure of a man (Burn Gorman). He is virtually faceless, obscured by weather and gauzy drapes. Yet, Julie senses she’s being watched. She tries to talk herself out of her fear, but whenever she looks, he’s there, which causes her to look more often. Near encounters in a movie theatre and a local grocery store, add to her suspicions. But, even examining the store’s surveillance video doesn’t convince her husband.

“Maybe,” Francis teases, unconcerned, “He’s just staring at the woman who’s staring at him.”

“He probably has a little crush,” a police officer suggests.

While Julie may or may not be blowing her voyeur out of proportion, we learn that a serial killer is loose. Dubbed “the Spider” by the press, he murders young women by slitting their throats, in some cases so deeply that he decapitates them. Understandably, Julie’s suspicions grow. 

Left to her own devices and increasing uneasiness, Julie begins to stalk her stalker. She follows him to a strip club, where it turns out Irina (Mădălina Anea), the only friend she’s made, works. She later convinces Irina’s ex to go with her to confront the man who’s been watching her, only to find she’s disturbed his elderly father. Disbelieved and emotionally abandoned, there’s little for Julie to do until the climactic and potentially deadly confrontation she — and we — know is coming.

Okuno, working with a script she adapted from Zach Ford’s screenplay, directs with the assurance of a more seasoned professional. The film is sleek and bleak, and we feel Julie’s isolation and growing fear. Okuno has created a thriller that stands on its own, but also pays homage to horror masterpieces, ranging from Halloween (the lurking figure) to Rosemary’s Baby (the gaslighting) and most clearly Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Seventy years ago, Monroe would have made a perfect Hitchkockian heroine. With her pale skin and platinum hair, she’s classic and classy, an updated Grace Kelly or a neomodern Tippi Hedren. Best-known as a teenage “scream queen” in It Follows and The Guest, the more mature Monroe is endlessly compelling and a pleasure to watch, which is a good thing because Watcher is devoted entirely to her point of view.

Watcher (and there is some question as to who is the watcher and who is being watched) is genuinely frightening. Suffice it to say, I would not want to live across the street from Gorman, whose face here is a stonelike mask, devoid of all human connection. But, what makes it particularly disturbing is the utter lack of support Julie gets from those who are supposed to love or protect her. She raises alarms, asks for help to no avail. Her own husband goes from a lack of concern to outright making fun of her. And, if you can believe it, the police insist that she apologize to her creepy if not murderous neighbor for harassing him.

Meanwhile, her gut, her instincts, her woman’s intuition is dead on. And the word dead is completely apropos here. Watcher is excellent entertainment. But, assuming women are crying wolf is all too real.

The young New York mother’s name, by the way, was Azsia Johnson. If someone had taken her instincts more seriously, she might be alive today. Eric Adams, New York’s Mayor, released a statement after the arrest, “All New Yorkers stand with the Johnson family in this difficult time.”

Too little. Too late.

Watcher is now playing in theatres and can be rented on Amazon Prime.

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