Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Watcher review: A pointed exercise in voyeuristic suspense

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When the Roman poet Juvenal asked, in so many translated words, “Who watches the observers?” he spoke of infidelity. But the question has accepted several uses through the lexicon in the centuries after. Observer, a sight and sight-oriented exercise in mountain suspense by director Chloe Okuno, builds an entire film on it. Here, voyeurism is a two-way street where the observer becomes the one being watched and vice versa. The defining image of the film is a figure, obscured by distance and draperies, peering out of a window across the road, inviting the very examination in which he secretly indulges.

Newcomer Julia (Maika Monroe) is only a few hours away from Bucharest when she first catches a glimpse. She recently moved there from New York City with her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), whose family is from Romania; the wasteful son is back for a lucrative new job in … maybe marketing, the film barely explains. It is not the easiest transition for Julia, who does not speak the language (the dialogue is not in English, she is shrewdly subtitled, to forge immediate identification with her) and has no friends in this new city, which she explores alone for long hours. . Francis is at work. Their apartment is elegant but a little too spacious, with large windows that make her private life public.

Okuno, making his feature debut after a run of buzzing shorts (including one of the best segments in the last year). horror anthology V / H / S / 94), establishes a sense of surveillance immediately, cutting to the taxi driver’s probing eyes on the airport shuttle. The credits roll over a long shot of Julia and Francis baptizing the couch in their spacious new living room as the camera pulls back and forth, revealing how clearly the rest of the world can see into their amnesty.

The script, written by Zack Ford and then rewritten by Okuno, proceeds at a pre-run rampage to convey how Julia’s fears are gradually growing. At first, she guesses them for a second. Is anyone really looking at her, or is the big international movement just annoying her? But then there is the news of a serial killer loose, a madman named The Spider, who cleans the heads of women. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not looking for you.

It’s nice to see Monroe back in the terrifying business nearly a decade after she established herself as an enchanting queen of modern horror, starring in John Carpenter’s twin tributes. It follows and The Guest. She has a dreamy anxiety that feels almost fatalistic, as if her characters have always evoked danger from the ether to combat her boredom. It’s the perfect aura for a thriller that slowly refutes its heroine’s self-doubts. Monroe stuffs us into Julia’s seawing care – the way she initially struggles with the possibility that her mind might be playing tricks on her. Leaving aside current trends in therapeutic genre pricing, Okuno provides her with just a whisper of a backstory. All we really learn is that Julia used to be an actress – a job, not by chance, that can make someone feel uncomfortable.

Maika Monroe waves her hand out the window.

Observer recognizes its place on an honored continuum of stalker stories. It’s a little Rear Window in its slow pans across the glass surfaces of neighboring architecture, and much of the archetypal “Hitchcock blonde” in Monroe’s sometimes wordless performance. Gender addicts will capture suggestions from the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s and Italian. yellow rate of the same period. (Nathan Halpern’s score continues to flirt with synth threat, though its ominous pins don’t quite bloom in Goblin-like symphony.) But Okun’s style, clean and effectively straightforward, never feels plagiarized or particularly ostentatious. And it is both strategically told and rather pointed out that she resists the siren call of a striking Jason Voorhees POV, refusing to deceive Monroe with the eyes of a murderer. Okuno wants to make us guess how real the threat is, while also breaking away from the masculine gaze that is so uncritically adopted by so many films of this kind.

Does the film blame its own uncertainty? As the plot inches in, Julie stops casting suspicion on her suspicions. She you know something is wrong. But the more confident she becomes, the less her worries are taken seriously by the police, the neighbors, even Francis, whose persistent attempts to allay her fears range from consolation to rejection just right away. (He is like a politely subversive millennial update from John Cassavetes’ career husband in Rosemary’s Baby.) Observer becomes a kind of gaslight story, a portrait of the way a woman’s recognition of danger can be ignored, minimized, and subtly codified as hysteria. You don’t have to strain to see the parallels between its fictional horror and the big headline news of the week.

But Okuno leaves all this bubbling under the surface. A topic never gets strained Observer, which is content to let meaning emerge organically from the well-known cat-and-mouse games of its slim genre plot. There’s nothing in this movie that you haven’t seen a version of before; it contains few big surprises. But a reward does come, rewarding the patience of the audience with their patient storytelling. It doesn’t matter that you know the face of evil when you first see it, a good half hour before Okun forgives our confirmation bias. This is a film about identifying and responding to warning signs, even when everyone around you insists that they are not there. Why shouldn’t the public, the third observer of the tile, be part of that equation?

Observer now plays in select theaters and is available for digital rental. For more AA Dowd reviews and writings, visit his Authorized page.

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