One of the most important elements in the horror genre, if not yet established as a cardinal rule, is the voyeuristic presence. There is the uncanny feeling where the protagonist feels a set of eyes on them. Whether they can see those eyes right back (making the film a thriller about a physical homicidal villain) or cannot return the gaze (making the film a supernatural platform for ghosts to fuck things up in the material world), the protagonist cannot shake that feeling until the final showdown. In the meantime, it’s hard to act right when we’re being watched. Even in normal settings, I might forget how to put one foot in front of the other when someone is watching me walk down the street. One can imagine how one would react when someone wordlessly removes our barriers of personal space and safety by peering right into the vulnerable parts. I see you, the voyeur silently suggests, and you belong to me.
Chloe Okuno’s Watcher is an insulated psychodrama about a woman who fears that she is being stalked. Maika Monroe, resident small-budget scream queen, plays Julia, a former actress who follows her boyfriend Francis (Karl Glusman) to Bucharest. As Francis works during the day, Julia spends her time alone in the apartment. Transitioning from tourist to adapter, Julia learns the Romanian language and travels by herself to grocery stores and museums. However, from day one, she notices a man (Burn Gorman) watching her from across the building. Her fears follow her to different places and manifests into the sneaking suspicion that the man could be related to the Spider, the nickname of a suspect-at-large responsible for decapitating a few women.
While the plot does not give into adventurous tides or original spook factors, Okuno bequeaths the film’s strength to Monroe’s performance. It Follows is a great movie, especially as there is a gamble that the audience will stick through its slightly inane premise for the last wild fifteen minutes. Watcher has a conclusion that might feel in pace with the Monroe-vs-stalker trend, but it has a different looming atmosphere. Many of Julia’s actions and word choices are restrained, even though we can tell that she’s freaking the fuck out. Not showing a character into spiraling hysteria might make it stand out from other films with similar stories, but I also feel there is the director’s deliberation in making Julia more anchored to normalcy. Even though she is being watched, Julia is often the outside observer in social circles. Many of Francis’s conversations with his co-workers are in Romanian, excluding Julia from the camaraderie and “Oh, it’s just a work thing.” When Julia finally picks up on a “joke” — “Maybe the Spider can keep her company,” Francis says about her — it feels like she is learning to fight back.
After seeing Watcher, it’s hard not to relate this to the biggest circulating subject in pop culture right now: Johnny Depp’s defamation lawsuit against Amber Heard. Similar to the Hassle’s observations about Men and Happening, Watcher echoes a topical discussion of the “perfect victim,” or the victim whose truth is largely accepted because there aren’t any extenuating circumstances to believe that the victim is a bad person or has done bad things. There is a lot of information about this trial that makes it difficult not to expound on to get the full picture (but if it’s relevant to the next few sentences and because even the #metoo movement is pussyfooting around it, I believe Depp is a misogynistic abuser who lost his star power before Heard’s op-ed). Without getting deep into it, I’ve noticed there is an odd Internet phenomenon where people have been super invested in disproving Heard’s claims. While the word of the victim never seems to be enough, people are putting strenuous efforts to “debunk” photographic and textual documentation of Depp’s abuse. Like Monroe’s Julia, Heard is an attractive white woman who, in the bigger societal picture, would generally be supported. But place them against innocuous-looking white men (who are also powerful with blockbuster nostalgia behind them, at that) with a sharp focus on the woman’s personal fallacies, there is a sudden suspension of belief in the victim. If words, evidence, and corroborating stories are not enough, then what does it take to believe a woman? Those at a socioeconomic or racial disadvantage? Watcher shares a saddening sentiment that seems to be implied in many of these accusations against Heard: in the end, the “perfect victim” is one that is dead.
dir. Chloe Okuno
Opens Friday, 6/3 @ AMC Boston Common
Available digitally and on demand 6/21