In ‘Watcher,’ Fear Is Scary
3:49 PM EDT on October 24, 2022
Watcher, a newish and very good psychological thriller available on Shudder, puts the viewer in a supremely icky position. The protagonist, a lonely and adrift woman named Julia, played by the excellent Maika Monroe, is displaced to Bucharest by her husband's career ambitions, and begins to worry that she is being stalked, possibly by a creepy neighbor who seems to spend a lot of time staring from his apartment window into hers. This is at first a minor discomfort and a point of sad alienation from her distracted husband, until Julia learns of a string of recent unsolved murders of young women in their part of town, and one possibly related assault where the victim felt that her attacker had stalked her for some time prior to the attack. Titillated locals believe there's a serial killer on the loose and have nicknamed him The Spider. It's all translated from Romanian and all kind of loosely held together, but it raises some alarms.
A lot of confusion and disorientation stems from Julia's unfamiliarity with Romanian culture and language. The Bucharest that she experiences during her aimless daylight walking tours is friendly enough—smiling locals encourage her shy, fledgling attempts to communicate in their language, and are patient and accommodating when they sense she's out of her depth—but Eastern Europe is a very long way from New York City, geographically and culturally. Her new town is dingy and sparse, and is crumbling in places, and the customs are subtly unfamiliar. It would be easy for a fearful foreigner to assume that it is inherently less safe. Julia seems aware of this and is determined to extend the benefit of the doubt, but she also has trouble reconciling the instances when Bucharest is suddenly hostile. One afternoon she explores the interior of a grand and opulent building, until a security guard suddenly flares up. Is she trespassing? Did she break some obvious rule? Is she violating some unknown norm? Nothing in his rapid-fire Romanian can provide any answers; all she can interpret from his intensity is that she made an error, and all she can manage by way of corrective action is to get the hell out of there, flinging apologies back over her shoulder the way a fleeing squid releases a cloud of ink.
There's an interesting conflict in here, between the rational feeling of safety that you triangulate socially versus Gavin de Becker-style alligator-brain fear, which bubbles out of your subconscious to alert you that you are in danger. Julia wants to take comfort from the unbothered attitudes of her husband and his colleagues, and feels enormous pressure to do so, but the fear remains. When the locals giggle and gossip in giddy Romanian and broken English about a possible serial killer menacing their neighborhood, is that because Bucharest is an inherently violent and dangerous place? Julia has this weirdo staring down into her apartment every night, but no one seems to take it seriously, including the local police. Does that mean that overtly pervy male behavior is normal here? Or is she perhaps only bothered by it in the first place because of a xenophobic suspicion of foreign men? Or is it possible that she is in fact the one doing the staring, and the guy across the way is just looking back?
Julia's husband is no help. For selfish reasons having to do with his limited emotional bandwidth (which he is only too eager to mask as a queasily paternal concern for her mental wellbeing), her husband, who is conversant in Romanian, takes every opportunity to intercept and obscure and soften information related to The Spider, or related to her fears of a stalker. Over and over he tiptoes into a room, leans against a doorframe, arranges his face to communicate maximum loving concern, and asks, "Are you OK?" Not Is that creep still at it, or Whose ass should I kick off, or even Should we relocate to a hotel for a few nights—his concern is not that Julia is being stalked or that she is having a hard time adjusting to a solitary existence in a foreign country. His overriding concern is that she be normal when he gets home from work, and his way of prodding things in that direction is to get Julia to think of the stalker as a problem that mostly exists in her head.
More than once Julia steps out on a limb, flirting with confrontation with her possible stalker, but the motivation seems to be less catching the villain red-handed and more proving to herself that her husband has been right this whole time. It would certainly solve some emerging domestic troubles if she simply accepted that this is all in her runaway imagination, and would then go back to being cool and sexy and chill. Possibly sensational rumors of a serial killer make it easy for her husband to dismiss her fears of a stalker as the work of an overactive imagination. Julie isn't necessarily suspicious that her stalker is The Spider, and part of her struggle is with expecting to be taken seriously even if this creep isn't the one doing murders. Every time she goes back to the window there he is, watching her, rudely and ominously but not illegally. And every time she talks about it, even after a disturbing close encounter during a particularly frightening day around town, a condescending man just pats her on the head and tells her that she's being silly.
This creates a weird and interesting dynamic for you, the viewer. Julia is at all times lonely and achingly vulnerable, and it sucks to watch her have her world further compressed by fear. You do not want her to be stalked, much less so by The Spider. You want her to be safe, and so you want her to be wrong. But also, it's fucking infuriating to watch the people around Julia treat her like a child and handle with disregard bordering on indifference the decidedly non-zero chance that she is in fact being hunted by a serial killer. When Julia is out in the world alone, you want it to be the case that all her fears and suspicions amount to alienation in a new and different place. But when a cop rolls his eyes, or when her husband has the audacity to describe her mounting terror as "fantasy," you almost cannot help hoping that she will be attacked by a literal serial killer, just to spite them. You're left at times with this dangerous and foolhardy urge to see Julia do what the authorities evidently cannot, which is track down and nab the perpetrator, removing herself from danger and proving that her fears were justified, in one ridiculous swoop. It would be desperate and insane, yes, but her only other choices seem to be to hide forever inside her apartment or to embrace another form of self-destructive recklessness, by pretending the danger isn't real.
There's really a surprising amount of juice in this setup. The whole feel and meaning of Julia's vulnerability whenever she's alone is heightened by all that she can't communicate and can't immediately understand, and by her increasing emotional distance from her few acquaintances, who seem determined to understand her real-world concerns as a metaphor for displacement, or as a glitchy overproduction of estrogen. Eventually all that her world contains is fear and isolation; her most dependable association, by far, is with the frightening silhouette looming in the window across the way. Thankfully, the movie never gets into any cathartic but cheap vigilantism or, worse, any wack symbiosis nonsense; it just traps you inside the world of somebody experiencing the oppressive loneliness of an urban existence, the destabilizing confusion of submersion in a foreign culture, the dread and violation of being stalked, and a taste of the dismissal and paternalism heaped on women who need their safety to be taken seriously in a world constructed largely by and for the very people who create the danger.
There is a brain-meltingly scary scene at about the 80-percent mark of Watcher where Julia has a quiet encounter on a nearly empty subway train, with a person holding a plastic shopping bag. The camera focuses unexpectedly on the shopping bag, and then on Julia's face, and then again on the shopping bag, and suddenly the contours and shadows of the crinkled plastic of the bag make a kind of visual sense, the way a 3D stereogram suddenly snaps into shape if you stare at it with soft eyes. The suppressed horror mounting in Julia's eyes tells you she sees it, too: Right there, sitting right there, obscured only by the perfect mundanity of its packaging, is the most horrible possible thing. Is it Julia's own ragged, dread-saturated imagination, and ours, grabbing up inputs and distorting them, organizing benign details of a world humbly going about its business into validations of paranoid fear? Or is it real? And, importantly, who would ever believe her if it is?