Watcher review: A pointed exercise in voyeuristic suspense

Watcher review: A pointed exercise in voyeuristic suspense

In Chloe Okuno’s taut first feature, a woman is convinced a man is watching and possibly even following her.

While the film theorist Laura Mulvey may be best known for her concept of the male gaze, she has used another evocative term in her writing to illustrate her point: “to-be-looked-at-ness.” This gestures to the ways in which women particularly onscreen have historically been destined for display, intentional objects of erotic pleasure. “Watcher” follows Julia, an ex-actress played superbly by Maika Monroe, who is suffocating under the weight of her to-be-looked-at-ness. And not just because she believes a creep is surveilling her apartment.

Unlike in the films Mulvey criticized, Julia’s to-be-looked-at-ness exists beyond titillating the audience or fascinating a male lead. It is intentional, something to be commented on and subverted. This is just one of the many ways that the writer and director Chloe Okuno deftly elevates “Watcher” from a Hitchcockian homage to one of this century’s most arresting tales of female anxiety.

When Julia’s husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), gets a major promotion, the couple movies from New York to Bucharest, Romania. Francis, who is fluent in Romanian and can navigate the city much more easily, is constantly at work, so Julia aimlessly explores, trying to make the most of her new, lonely existence. She becomes obsessed with a silhouetted figure in the building across from theirs, convinced a man is watching her and possibly even following her. This feeling is no doubt compounded by the presence of a local serial killer who has been targeting women her age.

The film tangles Julia’s to-be-looked-at-ness with her very being. In the first scene, after regarding her in the rearview mirror, a taxi driver teaches Julia a new word in Romanian. “I say you are beautiful,” the driver tells her. “Frumoasa.” The next day, Julia listens to a Romanian language lesson. It first instructs her how to say, “She is a beautiful woman.”

This is brilliant set dressing for what comes later. Julia’s personhood has already been reduced to superficial terms, so it feels disturbingly natural that the men around her who notably can speak fluently with each other, but not with her are increasingly unable to take her seriously.

Watcher” isn’t so much about whether or not Julia’s suspicions are correct as it is about her journey suffering from uniquely female paranoia. At one point, Julia gets spooked by Francis’s sexual advances after a long day of feeling hunted. “I get it,” Francis tells her. It’s abundantly clear that he doesn’t, but the film smartly refuses to paint his ignorance or growing incredulity as malicious. It’s not his fault that he doesn’t get it. He can’t.

Gazing is consistently presented as a nuanced but often aggressive act, one that also implicates the viewers. As the opening credits play, the camera slowly tracks away from the couple’s enormous living room windows, its focus unwavering as they have sex on the couch. While stalking her maybe-stalker, Julia stumbles upon a strip club called Museum, in which half-naked women gyrate in front of large, framelike windows.

Indeed, the only explicitly positive watching in this film is borne of female solidarity. Julia and her neighbor, Irina (played by an electrifying Madalina Anea), pledge to look out for each other. It is a pact that drives much of the action and eventual catharsis in Okuno’s taut, unflinching, relentlessly sharp first feature.

Rated R for physical and psychological violence. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters.

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