When the Roman poet Juvenal asked, in so many translated words, “Who watches the watchers?” he was talking about infidelity. But the question took on multiple uses across the lexicon over the centuries that followed. Observer, a visual and sight-driven exercise in building up suspense from director Chloe Okuno, is building an entire movie on it. Here, voyeurism is a two-way street, where the spectator becomes the watched and vice versa. The defining image of the film is a figure, obscured by distance and curtains, gazing out of an opposite window, inviting the very scrutiny he is surreptitiously indulging in.
Young expat Julia (Maika Monroe) has only been in Bucharest for a few hours when she first sees the voyeur. She just moved from New York with her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), whose family is from Romania; the prodigal son is back for a lucrative new job in… maybe marketing, the movie barely clarifies. It’s not the easiest transition for Julia, who doesn’t speak the language (the non-English dialogue is cleverly de-subtitled, to instantly identify with her) and has no friends in this new city that she explores alone for long hours François is at work. Their condo is chic but a bit too big, with big windows that make its privacy public.
Okuno, who is making his feature film debut after a string of buzzing shorts (including one of the best segments in last year’s horror anthology V/H/S/94), immediately establishes a sense of surveillance, piercing the cab driver’s piercing gaze on the ride from the airport. The credits return to a long shot of Julia and Francis christening the sofa in their spacious new living room, as the camera pans back and forth, revealing how clearly the rest of the world can see into their love nest.
The script, written by Zack Ford and then rewritten by Okuno, continues at an ominous pace to express how Julia’s fears are steadily growing. At first, she guesses them. Is anyone actually watching her, or has the big international move just rattled her? But then there’s news of a serial killer on the loose, a lunatic nicknamed The Spider who is cleaning women’s heads. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
It’s nice to see Monroe back in the world of terror nearly a decade after establishing herself as a haunting scream queen of modern horror, headlining John Carpenter’s twin tributes to It follows and The guest. She has a dreamy restlessness that seems almost fatalistic, as if her characters are always conjuring up the danger of the ether to combat their boredom. It’s the perfect aura for a thriller that is slow to refute its heroine’s doubts. Monroe immerses us in Julia’s worry – the way she initially struggles with the possibility that her mind is playing tricks on her. Going against current therapeutic genre trends, Okuno only provides it with a whisper of backstory. All we really learn is that Julia was an actress – a job, not by chance, that can leave anyone feeling uneasy.
Observer recognizes its place in a revered continuum of stalker stories. A little ago rear window in her slow pans across the glazed surfaces of neighboring architecture, and much of the archetypal “blonde Hitchcock” in Monroe’s sometimes mute performance. Genre junkies will understand allusions to 1970s paranoid thrillers and Italian giallo rate for the same period. (Nathan Halpern’s score continues to flirt with synth menace, though its ominous pings don’t quite turn into a goblin-like symphony.) But Okuno’s clean and effectively direct style doesn’t feel never plagiaristic or particularly ostentatious. And it’s both narratively strategic and rather sharp that it resists the siren’s call from a ogling Jason Voorhees perspective, refusing to frame Monroe through the eyes of a killer. Okuno wants us to guess how real the threat really is, while breaking away from the male gaze that is uncritically embraced by so many films of this ilk.
Does the film acknowledge its own uncertainty? As the plot progresses, Julia stops casting suspicion on her suspicions. She knows something is wrong. But the more certain she becomes, the less her concerns are taken seriously by the police, the neighbors, even Francis, whose persistent attempts to allay her fears quickly turn from comforting to dismissive. (He’s like a politely undermining millennial upgrade of John Cassavetes’ career husband in Rosemary’s baby.) Observer becomes a kind of gaslighting story, a portrait of how a woman’s recognition of danger can be ignored, downplayed, and subtly coded as hysteria. You don’t have to strain to see the parallels between its fictional horror and the week’s headlines.
But Okuno leaves all that bubbling below the surface. The theme never diverts the tension in Observer, which is content to let meaning organically emerge from the familiar cat-and-mouse games of its slender genre plot. There’s nothing in this movie that you haven’t seen a version of before; it has some big surprises in store. But a payoff is coming, rewarding viewers’ patience with its patient storytelling. It doesn’t matter that you know the face of evil when you first see it, a good half hour before Okuno indulges in our confirmation bias. This is a film about identifying and responding to warning signs, even when everyone around you insists they aren’t there. Why shouldn’t the public, the third observer of the tile, be part of this equation?
Observer is playing now in select theaters and available for digital rental. For more reviews and writings by AA Dowd, visit his Authory page.