Film, Film Review

REVIEW: The Watchers (2024) dir. Ishana Night Shyamalan

Now playing @ Kendall


Ishana Night Shyamalan’s The Watchers was one of my most anticipated films of 2024. It’s rare that a first-time feature director ends up with the instant agreed-upon significance as Shyamalan, whose father is one of the great directors of our age and might have more than something to do with any (unfair) expectations for Ishana. Her adaptation of A. M. Shine’s novel demonstrates exciting ambition and professional skill, as well as an unsurprising command of the genre, though her tools are a bit too raw for her debut to work completely.

The welcome, recognizable face of Dakota Fanning does a bit of the heavy lifting, but let’s not fool ourselves by declaring her an honest-to-god movie star; she manages the role well and sometimes that’s enough. Not every performance needs to be Florence Pugh in Midsommar. The premise feels perfect for something weird and fucked up: Mina (Fanning), while finishing a delivery on the Irish coast, stumbles into the mythical part of the forest that I spent way too much time looking for as a kid. An older woman (Olwen Fouéré) saves her from certain death, bringing her into a cabin with two other guests her age and a giant one-way mirror on the wall that doubles as a window for “The Watchers,” a mysterious species of supernatural creatures who study their human captives at night (but can’t enter the locked cabin). Ishana Night Shyamalan takes advantage of the set-up for a few undeniable scares and fascinating images involving reflections and perspective, and that makes it a hard film to regret watching even if one comes out a bit sour on the total experience.

For better or worse, most conversations about The Watchers will at some point or another get to the elephant in the room: M. Night Shyamalan (who serves as a producer). Ishana certainly deserves to be considered as an artist of her own, and that’s something that will likely come with time, but the film she made makes comparisons to her father unavoidable. It doesn’t help that trailers for his new movie, Trap, played at my screening, nor that they are taking on the press circuit together

The genre, of course, starts the conversation (beyond Shyamalan’s name) and the director does little to skirt the issue with a similar attraction to the last-minute twists that have become synonymous with her father, as well as the way her world even reflects the insulated and potentially threatening community of The Village. The comparison goes deeper than genre and blood though. The younger Shyamalan served as a second unit director on both 2021’s Old and 2023’s Knock at the Cabin. (I’m also willing to die on the hill that the former is one of the great horror movies of the 21st century.) In more ways than one, she is a product of the School of Shyamalan.

Shyamalan juggles so many big themes that dropping a few was always inevitable. Mina grieves and regrets something from her childhood that links haphazardly with the present, performance art seems to play a role of its own, trust and distrust, and human itself. The performance art particularly felt like an underdeveloped thread. Mina is a drawer and a ballerina even if her art goes missed; Clara (Georgina Campbell) also dances and she does so to amuse the Watchers. The entire house watches a trash reality TV dating show to pass the time, a show that they actually filmed for the movie (and feels more intentional as a result instead of random use of real junk TV). Early on, before she ends up in the woods, we spot Mina putting on a wig — a sign of identity insecurity or transactionality —  before she goes out for the night. And, most crucially of all, their whole lives are performances before the Watchers like a never-ending play. Shyamalan devotes a good chunk of screentime to the art but loses track of the theme in the film’s final act. And that feels encapsulating for the experience of watching The Watchers: there seems to be something there, except that feeling is a trick and there is no there there. 

The Watchers
dir. Ishana Night Shyamalan
102 min.

Now playing @ Kendall Square Cinema and theaters everywhere

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and In Review Online. He has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, Off Screen, and DMovies amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, cinematic sexuality, as well as Eastern and Northern European, East Asian, & Middle Eastern film. 

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