Since the mid-2000’s, the country of Romania has been turning out great films, not just by talented native directors but also by foreigners: the German comedy masterpiece Toni Erdmann, the Norwegian disaster film The Wave, and both Borat movies. In Watcher, which opens this weekend, American director Chloe Okuno uses the Romanian capital as a menacing setting for the story of a woman being stalked, and it showcases the first-time filmmaker’s talent for atmosphere.
Maika Monroe plays Julia, a former New York actress who has given up the profession and moved to Bucharest with her Romanian husband Francis (Karl Glusman). Their apartment has some big bay windows, through which she notices what appears to be a man staring at her from the tower across the street, one floor up. She does the sensible thing and puts some curtains in, but Francis is continually working long hours at the office or taking business trips out of the country. While she’s in an otherwise empty movie theater, an exceptionally ugly man (Burn Gorman) who’s been staring at Julia gets up from his seat and moves to the one directly behind her. If that’s not unsettling enough, a woman a few blocks away from their apartment is found decapitated, the latest victim of the serial killer who’s been terrorizing the city.
A woman left alone by her husband for long stretches in a strange city where she doesn’t speak the language is a recipe for trouble, and Okuno surrounds her heroine with people who carry on intense conversations in Romanian without bothering to translate for her. The streets of Bucharest provide an eerie setting, whether Julia starts hearing strange noises on a train platform or spots the man in the street and follows him to his workplace. You wouldn’t get this from a more familiar foreign city like Paris or Tokyo. The apartment itself has thin walls through which Julia can hear her stripper neighbor (Mȃdȃlina Anea) having loud sex, and it helps create the impression that her home has no privacy. Francis thinks she’s losing her mind, and there’s a great bit at a party where he tells his colleagues jokes at her expense, only to find that her grasp on the language has improved.
Alas, Okuno’s slow-burn approach serves her less well in the violent climax, where she writes herself into a corner: Either the watcher is the serial killer or he isn’t, and the possibilities of both are exhausted by the time we learn which. Also, Monroe is catatonic in the places when her character’s mind should be working in hyperdrive. (On the other hand, here’s your best chance to look at Gorman, the American character actor with a memorable face who often plays creepy Englishmen or shows up in Guillermo Del Toro’s films.) Still, this pulpy thriller feels like the first effort of someone who will go on to make a better movie in the same vein. Or, at least, deserves to get the chance.