Films like “It Follows” and “The Guest” have already made Maika Monroe something of a modern scream-queen with a feminist bent. But the psychological acuity and compelling vulnerability Monroe brings to Chloe Okuno’s lean, stylish thriller “Watcher” suggests that her maturing movie-star presence goes well beyond any particular genre.
“Watcher,” which IFC Films opens in theaters Friday and makes available for digital rental June 21, is a classic kind of movie set-up made with enough texture, suspense and contemporary commentary to make it more than the sum of its tropes.
Julia (Monroe) and her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), have relocated to Bucharest. It’s his job in marketing that has brought them, and being half-Romanian, Francis is immediately much more at home than Julia. With little to do, she gazes out the large window of their handsome apartment at the wall of windows covering the drab building across the way. In one, a shadowy figure stares right back at her.
As days goes by, his silhouette — blurry through sheets of rain or wisps of drapes — is there almost whenever she looks. Julia’s initial concern grows into full-fledged paranoia when she begins sensing someone following her. And someone — it’s a long time before she, or we, get a glimpse of his face — is indeed trailing her. There is a near encounter at the grocery store. Even the movies (Julia ducks in to see “Charade”) aren’t an escape. At the same time, a serial killer nicknamed the Spider is slicing women’s throats in the city.
That basic framework could work for many lurid thrillers before “Watcher,” and, no doubt, if certain male filmmakers were behind the camera, there would be lingering shots of lovemaking that would position the viewer in some relation to the stalker. But Okuno, in her riveting and accomplished directorial debut, has a more sly sense of perspective. Our viewpoint remains bound to Julia, who, too, could be the watcher of the title. Her fear is received sensitively but increasingly condescendingly by her husband. Is she being watched, he says, or is the man just “staring at the woman who’s staring at him”?
That notion, that it’s Julia who has attracted a creep’s attention — as if it’s her fault — is at the heart of “Watcher.” Okuno’s taut feature artfully reconstructs a Hitchcockian thriller around, yes, a blonde heroine in Monroe, but one with her own gaze and distinct anxieties.
That doesn’t mean “Watcher” doesn’t lean on some well-worn stereotypes. The stalker (played by Burn Gorman) could easily slide into countless other movies. But “Watcher” is less about him than it is about the other men in the movie, and how they respond to Julia’s alarm. One dismisses the stalker’s interest as “probably just a little crush.” Under pressure to shrug it all off, Julia’s own certainty wavers.
Because she doesn’t speak Romanian but her husband does, Julia often finds herself left out of conversations. It’s like she’s speaking another language, entirely. One of the only ones who properly understands her is a neighbor named Irina (a terrific Mădălina Anea). But in “Watcher,” with a never-better Monroe inheriting and transforming the sort of role once inhabited by Kim Novak or Sharon Stone, what gets lost in translation can have fatal consequences for women.
“Watcher,” an IFC Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for some bloody violence, language, and some sexual material/nudity. Running time: 95 minutes. Three stars out of four.