The Shadow from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 crime novel rear window towers over Chloe Okuno’s gripping entry into the Sundance US Dramatic Competition, observer – but this debut work is much more than a homage. In the short 95-minute running time of the film, even a few other suspense classics get the nod. Still, observer is essentially its own creation, a sustained package that delivers on so many fronts – direction, cinematography, production design, music, performance – that what could so easily have been a formulaic slasher really pushes the boundaries of its genre and with one plays unusual desolation, which keeps the audience guessing until the end.
The premise is simple: At one point, film actress Julia (Maika Monroe) moved to Bucharest to be with her half-American, half-Romanian husband Francis (Karl Glusman), who has a high-pressure job at an advertising agency. It is clear from the outset that this will not be a smooth transition. In the taxi from the airport, Julia hears nothing of Francis’ long conversation with the driver, except for a condescending comment that she is “beautiful”. It is a portent of things to come; Despite trying to learn a few useful phrases, Julia is always out, which Okuno emphasizes by refusing us subtitles, even though there’s a lot of weird Romanian babble.
Alone during the day and increasingly at night, Julia becomes possessed by a shadowy figure staring at her from across the block, and what starts as a mild curiosity turns eerie when she discovers that a sadistic killer nicknamed The Spider is stalking women in the area , sometimes wounded, sometimes decapitated.
Shortly thereafter, Julia sees a man on the street who appears to be following her, first into a Rep cinema showing Stanley Donen’s Hitchcock satire farce plays, and then to the supermarket. There, ex-smoker Julia demands a pack of cigarettes, but gives them back with a touch of remorse. Pretty soon though, she’ll be smoking like a chimney as her mind races at full speed: Has she seen The Spider and is she his next victim?
The blame rear window is obvious and never hidden. Julia’s apartment has huge window panes with curtains that rarely close, even at night. But what’s interesting about that observer is that it takes more of the subtext of Hitchcock’s thriller and goes wild with the issue of voyeurism. Julia has a strange attraction to the mysterious man, and the film takes advantage of that. Like John Carpenter Halloween, there’s a lot going on in the picture, and focus is key. DP Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, making his feature film debut here, does an excellent job of obscuring the stranger’s face (hauntingly mask-like even when revealed) for a surprisingly long time. Nielsen’s color palette is muted, with lots of soft gray and green pastels accenting the occasional splash of red, like jam on toast, a glass of wine, and the crimson dress Julia wears on a failed date night.
Mostly though observer is a film about places and a woman’s place in those places. As paranoia sets in and an increasingly disbelieving Francis shuts down, Julia dresses desperately for the dreary, unfamiliar city streets see but not to be seen. Her block of flats, on the other hand, is spacious and stately, full of oddballs and eccentrics, and as Julia fears for her sanity, it begins to resemble the Dakota Building Rosemary’s baby, another film about a woman who harbors her suspicions.
Production design by Nora Dumitrescu plays a big part here, and Julia’s home stands in sharp contrast to the dimly lit Lynch apartment block where the mystery man lives. Lynchian also aptly describes the strip club that Julia invades, where strippers perform in glass boxes — no wonder the bouncer wryly calls it “a museum.”
It’s a claustrophobic setting made even more unnerving by Nathan Halpern’s increasingly inconsistent score, but Monroe brings just the right balance of vulnerability and toughness to sell. It certainly takes a certain level of confidence to cast the star of 2014’s supernatural chiller It follows here, since the part is very much about following and being followed, but observer uses her gaze to a good advantage, and that’s what separates the film from more traditional fare.
Horror is ever present in Okuno’s intelligent, provocative film on the fringes of every woman’s everyday experience, and many choose not to look. In observer, however, the victim confronts the male gaze and stares straight back, with serious goose bumps results.