Director Chloe Akuno's debut feature, Watcher, unsettles us within its opening moments as Julia (Maika Monroe) and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) walk through a lonely alleyway, a cat crying loudly in the background as they approach their new apartment in Romania. It is an unfamiliar country where Julia doesn't know the language, isolating her from those around her. The film is warmly lit with yellow hues in the darkness of night and greys by day, and it's accompanied by an unnervingly gothic score — somewhat reminiscent of a Hitchcockian crime noir thriller that evokes a sense of claustrophobic isolation and mystery in wide open spaces. It closely mirrors the tension and isolation of Rear Window (1954). Akuno has said that those influences are "clearly built into the DNA of this movie...even if I wasn't specifically working off the visual language of Rear Window, I'm positive every other filmmaker I was referencing was, so it's just a couple of degrees removed from Hitchcock."
Watcher focuses on Julia's experience as a woman up against the fears and discomfort of the unknown. She's recently abandoned her acting career and finds herself frequently alone and unoccupied. One night, people-watching from her picture window, she spots a vague figure in an adjacent building who seems to be looking back at her. Soon after, while alone at a local movie theater, Julia’s sense of being watched intensifies, and she becomes certain she’s being followed. Amidst her unease of strangers, a serial killer known as "The Spider" stalks the city. Akuno has said, "It's a movie I made to capture some of the fear and isolation we feel as women on a day-to-day basis." Cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen elevates the film's terror by composing beautiful images that feel tight and dangerous, playing with light and dark to widen or enclose the spaces that Julia inhabits.
"Hello darling. Any reason in particular you're standing in the dark?"
Julia seems to manifest her own destiny throughout the film. After becoming intrigued by the serial crimes plaguing the city of Bucharest, she begins to believe that she is being stalked by a mysterious stranger, first in a dark cinema as the loud deep breath of a man grazes her neck — then again in the market when her anxiety turns to fear. To her dismay, her husband dismisses her concerns and pushes aside evidence with his own rationalizations. While the gaslighting trope has been widely leveraged by filmmakers to tell the long-suffering stories of women as of late, it's a reality universally recognized. Julia finds a brief solace from the lonely blur of her empty days by befriending a neighbor as the torment of her anxiety intensifies. Her terror of the unseen, in some respects, mirrors the real terror, anxiety, and stress of pandemic life — she's locked in a cage of her husband's making.
Burn Gorman gives an incredibly menacing and subtle performance as the mysterious stranger that shadows Julia. I had the opportunity to ask Akuno about his casting, as he seemed the perfect fit for the role. She said, "I love Burn Gorman! He's an incredible actor, and he's a really wonderful person. We were in Bucharest, in pre-production casting the movie, and I think his manager reached out to us and suggested Burn. It was just like...oh my god, of course, how did I not think of Burn Gorman? He'd be the perfect person for this. I've always been such a big fan of his. I met him, and he immediately understood the character, just on a cellular level. He understood the sort of delicacy of him...his inner life and motivations, and he just had a really fascinating backstory in his mind [for the character] that was based in the history of Romania."
The underlying tension of Watcher is rooted in the disillusionment of Julia's marriage, her loneliness and isolation of being misunderstood, and her exclusion from her shared life with Felix. The fear derives from a woman's intuition, the ability to be truly empathic of every feeling Julia has, and the likelihood that she is right about everything. Akuno captures that sense of dread perfectly, building tension one could liken to Rosemary's Baby (1968).