OWhen you’re in an unfamiliar city, it can seem like everyone around you is staring, wondering what this intruder is doing in their space. At first it seems that this is the problem for ObserverThe protagonist of Julia (Maika Monroe), an American who moved with her Romanian-American husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), to Bucharest. Julia doesn’t know anyone in this unknown town and she doesn’t speak the language. There are vague references to her past career as an actress, but she seems aimless, searching for a new purpose in life. When she walks the streets alone while Francis is at work, she feels eyes on her everywhere.
But there’s one pair of eyes in particular that bothers her the most. In the building across the street, a lone man (Burn Gorman) seems to watch Julia’s apartment every night. Later, she sees this man at the cinema, then he follows her to a supermarket. She tells Francis, she calls the police and she has access to security footage from the supermarket, but no one takes her concerns seriously. All of his efforts only isolate himself further.
Writer-director Chloe Okuno draws on this sense of isolation and invalidation for almost the entire run of Observer, as Julia becomes increasingly convinced that she is in danger, even though the people around her remain dismissive. There’s a serial killer nicknamed “the spider” who targets women in Julia and Francis’ neighborhood, but that too becomes background noise and a topic of conversation for everyone.
Observer is a slow-burn thriller, drawing suspense from mere glimpses of a bland-looking man standing with a shopping bag. Okuno presents Bucharest well, and the architecture of the Cold War-era apartment buildings adds to the claustrophobic and oppressive feeling. Monroe gives a gripping performance and Okuno uses the methodical rhythm to his advantage. Even though viewers spend the entire movie alongside Julia, we can still get the lingering feeling that she’s just paranoid, projecting her insecurities onto this creepy but ultimately harmless neighbor.
Okuno also puts viewers on Julia’s side by choosing not to caption any of the Romanian dialogue, so the audience is just as lost as she is when she tries to communicate. His only friend and ally is his neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea), an exotic dancer who speaks perfect English and treats Julia with the compassion that everyone seems to miss. Thanks to her work, Irina is used to having men’s eyes on her, but that does not mean that she is less vulnerable than Julia, nor that she commands more respect from the people around her.
ObserverThe slow pace of can be frustrating at times, especially since the story never takes a particularly unexpected turn. It’s not a film about conspiracies or plot twists, but about an enhanced version of an everyday experience for many women, and Okuno keeps it grounded even as it ramps up the danger. Monroe conveys Julia’s fear and frustration without becoming unhinged, and Glusman keeps Francis quietly reassuring despite his obvious condescension. Gorman, who has made a career out of playing disturbing weirdos, is just as menacing standing silently in the background as he is when his character finally speaks to Julia.
Okuno directed the best segment of last year’s anthology film V/H/S/94a crude gonzo horror-comedy with a wild ending, and it’s kind of disappointing that Observer is so quiet. The tension rises in the same way again and again, and the result is cathartic but also somewhat disappointing. Julia deserves better from the people in her life, but she also deserves a little better from the movie. ♦
Directed by Chloe Okuno
With Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman, Burn Gorman