WATCHER, The cautionary tale burns slowly
Almost 70 years after Alfred Hitchcock rear window made its theatrical debut, it remains the ur-text, template or formula for virtually every premise-borrowing film that has followed in its wake.
Any movie, like writer-director Chloe Okuno’s (Slut) first feature film, Observer, can’t escape comparisons to Hitchcock’s masterpiece (to be fair, no film has been released since), but enhanced by a chillingly effective performance from longtime actor Burn Gorman as main character, Okuno provides enough ambience, atmosphere, and subtext to match the usual twists, turns, and flashbacks to create the setting of Bucharest Observer a modestly rewarding viewing experience for lovers of slow-burning, methodical psychological thrillers.
When we first meet Julia (Maika Monroe, Independence Day: Resurgence, It follows), an American expat who has joined her partner, Francis (Karl Glusman), in Bucharest to help him advance his professional career, she rides in a taxi while the driver makes unwanted comments about her physical appearance. This is the first time, but not the last, that Julia will encounter unwanted attention or male attention in Bucharest. As the half-Romanian Francis weakly defends her, he deliberately avoids confrontation with the driver, a sign of Francis’ personality that avoids conflict and gets along with who ultimately threatens his long-term health and safety. relationship with Julia.
Drawing heavily on Julia’s developmental experience as a typical “foreigner in a foreign land”, made all the more foreign because Julia does not speak Romanian beyond a handful of words, Okuno explores Julia’s growing unease and despondency via the latter’s unstructured daily sojourns in semi-desolate Bucharest (Okuno’s coup Observer on site during the pandemic). Without any sort of plan for her days, Julia wanders around and through Bucharest, ever aware of her isolation as a monolingual American in a foreign country, only returning in the early evening to welcome Francis home after a day charged, though ill-defined. , day at his new job. Almost ignoring Julia, her needs and her feelings, Francis vaguely complains about a difficult and demanding new boss. Unsurprisingly, Julia in turn pretends to be interested.
All that free, unstructured time means that Julia can engage in any train of thought, any fantasy, any connection to reality, when she’s not with Francis in their apartment, whether she organizes meetings for her colleagues or she functions as a well-dressed accessory at a corporate event. The first hint of existential terror enters Julia’s life through a figure, the title’s “lookout”, whom she sees repeatedly from her window.
Motionless and shrouded in darkness, the figure’s presence offers the first real hint not only of potential danger to Julia’s life, but that viewers have entered different genre territory. Eventually, the Watcher stops watching and Julia begins meeting him in seemingly innocuous places, from a movie theater playing Stanley Donen’s film. Charade in a local supermarket where it appears on every corner.
Character-wise, Francis represents the kind of earnest, well-meaning man, almost pathologically obsessed with observing social niceties and norms, even if observing those niceties or norms means ignoring potential danger. With Francis nearly useless, Julia naturally turns to an English-speaking neighbor, Irina (Madalina Anea), for comfort and possibly help.
Julia encounters repeated resistance and/or gaslighting from the men around her, just as the Watcher hovers on the edge of her life. Unsurprisingly, sensationalized reports of a serial killer stalking and murdering women in and around Bucharest don’t help Julia’s increasingly unstable state of mind.
Observer certainly does not suffer from a lack of ideas, including Julia’s isolation, dislocation, and alienation as stand-ins for a cautionary tale about women moving through a hostile, predatory, and male-dominated world. men. Julia’s senses, elevated to heightened situational awareness, function as a not particularly subtle metaphor for the real world.
These concerns, of course, eventually fade away as Observer embraces its long-delayed thriller promise in the final moments. There, at least, Okuno offers minimal thrills, chills, and even a dollop of bloodstained gore. For some viewers with slightly higher horror expectations, it may be too little too late.
Observer premieres Friday, January 21 at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.