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Chloe Okuno’s debut feature Watcher is a relationship drama disguised as a thriller. By that I mean it isn’t governed by twists and turns. What you think is going on is pretty much what’s going on. It does thrill, though — or, more precisely, it chills. The plot is more or less a way into Okuno’s thoughts about a woman being infantilized, dismissed, and not believed when she raises a red flag; this last may resonate with many abuse survivors who just watched Amber Heard demonized and disregarded in front of the whole world. Watcher’s protagonist, indeed, is a young blonde actress, Julia (Maika Monroe), who from some angles bears a faint resemblance to Heard. None of this, obviously, is intentional. It’s just an accident of timing. But it demonstrates that Okuno’s themes were concerns long before the Depp/Heard trial and will continue to be.

Julia has moved with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman), who’s in marketing, to Bucharest, Romania, where his firm has a big account. Their new apartment is spacious if a bit featureless. Francis is gone all day and late into the night, while Julia drifts around the apartment and the neighborhood. It isn’t long before Julia notices the figure of a man staring at her from a window in an apartment building across the street from hers. This unsettles Julia, but nobody takes her very seriously, because the mystery man isn’t doing anything — until he starts seeming to follow her, turning up in the same places she does. But does that only mean they both live near each other and were bound to cross paths eventually? 

Meanwhile, a local serial killer dubbed The Spider has been going around the area decapitating women. For a while, Okuno gets some electricity out of ambiguity — we’re not sure if Julia is on the money or just paranoid. And this may be the rare sort-of-thriller informed as much by Lost in Translation as by Rear Window. Julia doesn’t speak Romanian, though she’s trying to learn, and when her husband rattles on smilingly to colleagues in unsubtitled Romanian we’re put in her uncomprehending and resentful position. Julia’s being in a city where she doesn’t know the language or the customs adds layers to her unease, as in countless other Americans-abroad thrillers. Many of the Romanians she meets do in fact speak English, but she’s constantly apologetic about making them conform to her linguistic needs, as though she felt like a white privileged American who should just shut up and, as she says at dinner with Francis and his Romanian co-workers, let the adults talk. But the tropes of a thriller dictate that she can’t shut up, and Okuno lets her be heard. Which is no guarantee she’ll be listened to.

The mystery man eventually makes himself known, in the ghoulish person of Burn Gorman, whose scowl could sour a gallon of milk. Gorman plays a man living with and caring for his sickly father; he occasionally people-watches out his window as a break from his routine. There’s a scene where he shows up at Julia’s apartment with a policeman, claiming that Julia is the one who has been stalking him; I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the scene has the quality of a legitimate nightmare Chloe Okuno has had or perhaps lived. The horrible thing is, his story does seem plausible considering that Julia’s fears have led her to do some dumb things like recruiting a Romanian tough she’s just met to knock on Gorman’s door. You can be a victim and still not be “perfect” or capable of three-dimensional chess. Okuno keeps us strongly linked to Julia’s emotions, and Monroe invests her scenes with fear, anger, hurt, and finally triumph.

But we return to why this isn’t really a “thriller” in the way some will expect. Such viewers may take the ending as anticlimactic. Shouldn’t there be twists? Ghosts? Weirdness? But that’s not what interests Okuno, who gains our trust as a distinctly female voice making a slow-burn chiller whose chills arise from the old trope of not being believed — specifically, a woman’s not being believed. We expect the finale to go on a few minutes longer, but Okuno flicks out the lights on the right image, I think. Anything that might have followed the climactic action would have been beside the point. The point is, they hear her now.

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