E. L. King calls the debut feature film from Chloe Akuno a tense thriller somewhat reminiscent of a crime noir evoking a sense of claustraophic isolation and mystery.
In director Chloe Akuno's debut feature, which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it's first few frames, Watcher unsettles you 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. An unfamiliar country where Julia doesn't know the language. The film is warmly lit with yellow hues in the darkness of night and greys by day, it's accompanied by an unnervingly gothic score—somewhat reminiscent of a crime noir thriller that evokes a sense of claustraophic isolation and mystery in wide open spaces. It closely mirrors the tension and isolation of Rear Window (1954).
Watcher focuses on Julia who joins her husband when he relocates to his family’s native Romania for a new job. Having recently abandoned her acting career, she 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—could it be the same unknown neighbor? Meanwhile, a serial killer known as "The Spider" stalks the city.
"Hello darling. Any reason in particular you're standing in the dark?"
Akuno had this to say about her debut feature film, "It's a movie I made to capture some of the fear and isolation we feel as woman on a day-to-day basis." Cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen manages to compose beautiful open spaces that feel claustrophobic and dangerous. Akuno is no stranger to horror films. She directed one of my favorite horror shorts, the award-winning Slut and recently wrote a remake of Audrey Rose for Orion Pictures and she wrote and directed a segment of the anthology film V/H/S/94.
Julia in some ways manifests 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 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 and belief she is being stalked intensifies. Her terror of the unseen, in some respects, mirrors the real terror, anxiety and stress of pandemic life.
While the influences of Hitchcock and Rear Window are apparent and obvious comparisons, Julia and her journey are unique. Akuno stated at the post premiere Q&A session that those influences are "clearly built into the DNA of this movie...I put a lot of myself in it. I know Maika put a lot of herself in it. 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."
Burn Gorman gives an incredibly menacing and sublte performance as the mysterious stranger. I had the opportunity to ask Akuno how that casting came about as Gorman seemed the perfect fit for the role, to which she replied, "I love Burn Gorman! He's an incredible actor and he's a really wonderful person. We were in Bucharest, in pre-producting casting the movie, every role including that of 'The Watcher' 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 like, 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 within the disillusionment of a marriage—the lonliness and isolation of being misunderstood and Julia's exclusion from her shared life with her husband. 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).