Maika Monroe excels as an actress in Bucharest who suspects she's being followed in a gripping but somewhat too familiar thriller
Not being believed is the biggest thing to fear in this slight but gripping throwback from American director Chloe Okuno, a Bucharest-set thriller that wonders: what if Alfred Hitchcock did Lost in Translation? In Watcher, Maika Monroe plays Julia, an actress taking a break from work, newly moved abroad with her Romanian-born boyfriend (Karl Glusman), only to be faced with an unsatisfying life of mounting ennui and cultural confusion.
Add to that the strange figure who appears to be spying on Julia from the apartment opposite, and the news that there's a serial killer loose on the streets of the city, praying on women. Scarier than any of this, though, is her husband's apathy over her increasing panic. When Julia expresses worry over being followed, he – and the police – question her sanity. But does she actually have something to fear, or simply too much time on her hands?
By way of slick and classy cinematography and all-consuming sound design, Okuno puts us into Julia's uneasy state of mind, a place where benign strangers are made scary and the architecture seems out to get her. The decision to not use subtitles whenever anyone is speaking Romanian only enhances Julia's sense of isolation – and ours. The clear allusions to Rear Window also probe our thinking about the relationship between the voyeur and the person being watched. But if the subject is watching back, aren't they both technically complicit in the act of voyeurism?
Okuno has made a tight, crisp thriller that poses interesting questions about our obsession with looking, making good use of Bucharest's grey cityscape and moody weather without falling back on cultural stereotypes of its citizens. She does well to keep us guessing, even if the film telegraphs a few of its tricks far too easily. If ultimately there's nothing particularly new to be found here in a narrative sense, Watcher retains tension and atmosphere to its very last scene, and Monroe is great in implying depth to a character that otherwise might have felt underwritten. One to watch.
Watcher is released in UK cinemas on 4 November.Where to watch