Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher,” a chilly and elegant thriller, embodies Julia’s state of mind in every aspect: the visuals, sound design, production design, color scheme, not to mention Monroe’s visceral central performance—all work together to express Julia’s point of view, so much so that doubt arises in regards to Julia’s reliability as the narrator of her own life. This is a stylized affair, and the care taken with every choice—the apartment interior, the furnishings, the color of the curtains, Julia’s red sweater and red tights, etc.—is meticulous. The film crackles with icy dread. Silences are loud and sounds are even louder. Nothing has the right proportion. Ceilings are too high, stairways too long. Voices emerge as if from the bottom of a well. Spaces are empty that should be full and vice versa. The mundane is terrifying, and the terrifying seduces. Nothing feels right. This is highly subjective filmmaking. “Watcher” is Okuno’s first feature, as well as a first feature for the cinematographer, Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, and the two together make a powerful team.
Julia and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) have moved to Bucharest. He is half-Romanian, speaks the language, and works long hours, leaving Julia—transplanted, adrift—to her own devices. Trouble starts immediately in the cab ride from the airport to their new apartment. Francis and the taxi driver chat in Romanian. Julia doesn’t understand a word being said. She is disoriented, especially when the two men appear to be talking about her. Okuno does not use subtitles, and this makes Julia’s frustrations our own. She hovers on the sidelines, asking Francis, “What did he say? What did she say?” As the two enter their new apartment building, she glances up at the building across the way, and sees something eerie. In a wall of darkened windows, there’s one that’s dimly lit, and a man (Burn Gorman) stands there, staring down at them. It’s probably nothing.
But every time she looks out her window, he’s there. Thus begins Julia’s emotional disintegration, beautifully tracked by Monroe, each scene building on what came before, until she is nearly unrecognizable from the woman we met at the start of the film. Julia starts to see the “watcher” out and about. He’s sitting behind her at a matinee of Stanley Donen’s “Charade” (or is he? It’s hard to tell), Later, she sees him again at the grocery store. Julia is now legitimately spooked. Francis is somewhat supportive of his wife—or he tries to be—but he is also baffled at the turmoil his wife has descended into. There’s a distinct sense from him that she’s making a huge deal out of nothing.