Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Review: The Watchers

Who watches the watchers? The watched?

I’ll admit I was drawn to watch (must avoid the temptation to make a torrent of bad puns) The Watchers because of the deeply bizarre and captivating image of these few people in a room in a building in the middle of the woods, in front of what appeared to be a gigantic mirror. It felt like an SCP article, with the attendant eeriness. It was only later that I learned that this film, released in 2024, was written and directed by Ishana Night Shyamalan—the daughter of, yes, the king of twists, M. Night Shyamalan himself, who serves as one of the film’s three producers.

The Watchers is set somewhere in western Ireland, within driving distance of Galway on the country’s Atlantic coast, in a forest where odd and disturbing entities live. This forest attracts those who are, for one reason or another, disillusioned, adrift, or otherwise deeply dissatisfied with their lives. Such is the story of Mina, your protagonist, an American who moved to Ireland and works at a pet shop in Galway dealing with her own personal demons. She takes an errand to deliver a bird to a buyer in Belfast as an excuse to get away for a while, and in doing so finds herself lost in this forest. She meets a small group of people eking out survival and putting on a show of sorts for the presences that dwell in this forest, who are fascinated with humanity in a way that these representatives of our kind most certainly would wish was not actually the case.

Mina, your protagonist, is played with proper subtlety by Dakota Fanning, who holds a lot on her shoulders. She is joined by the ominous leader of this small group of exiles-cum-captives named Madeline, played with many layers by Olwen Fouéré. Together with Oliver Finnegan and Georgina Campbell, they are all trapped in a small environment (a forest intent on not letting them leave) and slowly kicking up the tension as the film goes on, and they are set against each other in a way that is typical of its genre but executed competently.

I like the use of the Irish setting here. Part of it is the exoticism of the foreign country; the woods are woods, but they are not composed of the trees that I see in films set in the United States, or see around my hometown in the suburbs of the District of Columbia. Likewise, Galway just doesn’t look like any American town I’ve been to, with an architecture we tend to stereotype as Old World. Particularly, the shots of Galway Cathedral presiding over the city —it’s not tall enough to really be ‘lumbering’ over, so unlike big cities anywhere— put you in a different state of mind. On a broader level, this film engages with Irish culture in ways that I don’t want to spoil, but that allow the horror aspect to feel natural in its context. It makes the whole story feel like something told by the modern equivalent of a traveling minstrel, and I mean that in the best way possible (and I’m reminded of Eric Flint, who made that comparison, as does P. Djèlí Clark’s nom de plume in a West African context).

Much of the film is concerned with watching (could something with a title like that not?), indeed the very act of watching something, or someone, else. These are people put in a bizarre location away from the comforts of home and hearth to amuse people who aren’t really interested in them for their own sake. These are people, essentially, conscripted to amuse others, and the audiences keep them there, tormenting them to see what happens. It reminds me of my my favorite SCP article, one that makes this metaphor even starker, but there are undertones here that I think enhance the experience. Sure, we aren’t literally kidnapping people to be actors, but to survive they need to keep very fit, often to the point of health problems, so they can be attractive to us, endure grueling filming schedules, and then deal with merciless press junkies where the world pries into their lives as if they were public concern. I don’t know if the book this film is based on deals with this subject matter, but in bringing the story to film, the parallels become hard to ignore, and perhaps could not be told as well in any other medium barring perhaps television. It is a story in the vein of the plot of the original Watchmen comic, a narration that interrogates its very medium.

And yes, if you were wondering, there is a twist. Ishana follows in her father’s footsteps in creating a plot swerve. Fortunately, it is ultimately logical for the circumstances and makes sense given the story and the characterizations. You can certainly feel that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree here, but it’s an apple that is ultimately pretty sweet. I hope she gets more work and can start forging her own style, drawing from her father but never just being more of him (and Hollywood needs more female directors).

Overall, I enjoyed The Watchers. I would say it was reasonably good, not outstanding. I can’t place a finger on why exactly. The film does everything it does well, be it the acting, the plotting, the horror, the environment, the score, the cinematography. However, it never does any of those well enough to become a truly great film. It’s worth watching if you’re in the mood for horror, and particularly folk horror, but I don’t think it’ll become a classic.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.