Sundance 2022: Watcher – Paranoid Platitudes

Maybe it’s better to live with the uncertainty.

There’s little more anxiety-inducing than the isolation of the unfamiliar, to be somewhere without even footing or understanding, alone and without a voice, an inability to communicate pushing you even further beneath the chilling waters of isolation. All the due diligence has been satisfied, checking off the boxes of rational thought without considering the swaths of persistently human irrationality. And so, unease permeates: a stale and uncomfortable air that burns the throat and eyes as you attempt to force yourself into a synthetic smile while anxiety slowly erodes your conscience.

Julia (Maika Monroe) arrives in Bucharest, distant from her home and exhausted from the travel but nonetheless excited, embarking on the adventure of having moved to Romania along with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman), who has been called to his homeland by his work. All is well, or so it seems, as they enter their beautiful new apartment and immediately tumble together onto the couch. But the joy fades fast when Francis leaves for work in the morning, and suddenly the warm orange atmosphere is replaced with a chilling palette, a camera that demands to constantly isolate Julia as she is dwarfed by her surroundings. The streets are quiet and cold, ice creeping through cracks in the concrete and snow gently falling without interruption. It doesn’t take long for director Chloe Okuno to slowly inject a distressing unease.

The unspoken fear woven within each moment of Julia’s lonely days, winding through the city and quiet nights gazing through her large living room window, is tangibly powerful. Pristine direction that is constantly layering a slowly building anxiety clearly understood to be an all too familiar feeling. It is anxiety that is so often dismissed by men who have never felt it, as Francis does when Julia shares her suspicion that she is being methodically stalked by a shadowy and sinister presence. There is no evidence beyond her twisted gut feeling. But, it is not a feeling worth ignoring, and what is unfounded today could be all too real tomorrow.

What a setup we’re presented with, one that seems almost limitless in terrifying possibility, built upon thick tension and dripping with atmosphere, and led by immaculate performances (including the stellar Burn Gorman as the most innocuously terrifying presence). Yet it lingers too long, eventually meandering along what was once a razor sharp path as it struggles to maintain a clear way forward. It becomes so focused on its eloquent display of deep discomfort that it forgets to properly develop the rest, the camera that once held sharp intent now becoming stale, a formal clarity that lacks the intrigue to follow Julia’s descent into distraught paranoia. The establishing plot catalyst of uncertainty and discomfort followed by inevitable dismissal by male figures moves beyond establishment and becomes the film, repeated until it becomes tired and has nowhere left to go. By the time the finale arrives it is all but anticipated, failing to subvert any expectations or conjure anything of interest beyond its palpable atmosphere.

It is validating, in a way. A film that commits to how important trusting your instincts can be, even when your periphery is surrounded by dismissal and scoffs at your all too relevant fears. It just does this at the expense of cinematic value, ultimately becoming completely straightforward and obvious. There’s so much raw empathy and disquieting reality here, something that constantly feels right on the edge of so much possibility, but it can’t quite push itself off that edge. Instead it is merely a plateau. Functional, solid, and completely flat.


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