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Sundance Review: In “Watcher,” Maika Monroe Returns as Indie Scream Queen

Written by: Hannah Tran | January 26th, 2022

Chloe Okuno, director of WATCHER, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Watcher (Chloe Okuno, 2022) 3½ out of 4 stars.

Watcher is the rare thriller that never attempts to push its genre’s boundaries but constantly manages to surprise you. With strong and steady direction by Chloe Okuno (marking her feature debut), this film expertly peers into the mind of its lead character, Julia, as she grows increasingly certain that she’s being watched by someone after moving with her husband, Francis, to Romania. Alone in an unknown land, her fear, doubt, and isolation are visible in every frame of this vigorous story.

Led by a stellar performance by Maika Monroe (It Follows), Watcher reminds us of the unfortunate fact that she remains one of the most underutilized actors in Hollywood. Her turn as Julia feels extremely internal. We can understand everything her character is feeling with each slight shift of expression, often without dialogue. The supporting cast, which includes Burn Gorman (Enola Holmes) and Karl Glusman (The Neon Demon), who plays Francis, is also impressive. Gorman, like Monroe, does not need words to elicit terror, and Glusman, despite playing an unbelievably frustrating role, is a good sport who’s invested in portraying his character in the most realistically mindless way.

Maika Monroe appears in WATCHER by Chloe Okuno, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Francis’ doubts about Julia get to the center of what Watcher is about. Certainly, the idea of a woman being stalked and having trouble making others believe her is familiar. Watcher is interesting in that its limited perspective makes it impossible to be certain that Julia’s fear is justified, but the dismissal of her fears by those around her causes her confidence in her instincts to rapidly decline. Because of this multi-pronged threat, Julia never feels free from harm, and this allows the movie to create many of its most unnerving moments even when she is physically safe.

This feeling is heightened by the filmmakers’ masterful handle on the Watcher’s tone both behind and in front of the camera. The visually engaging cinematography and minimalist and moody color palette make Bucharest look like the loneliest city in the world. The locations themselves are complex and intriguing. Furthermore, they work in unison with the thoughtful costume design that reflects Julia’s shift in character as she begins to blend more and more into the space around her. With a uniform vision and steady control over atmosphere, Watcher is a suspenseful, and maddening, 90 minutes, anchored by a magnificent Monroe.

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Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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