The Watchers: A Folk Horror Thriller That Falls Short of Its Potential

The Watchers opens with a scarily effective cold open, establishing a gothic thriller atmosphere brimming with spooky visuals and nerve-shredding tension. However, the film quickly abandons this promising direction, opting instead for an overreliance on clunky exposition dumps and an uninteresting cast of characters.

The protagonist, Mina (Dakota Fanning), is an American working at a pet store in Dublin who finds herself stranded in the same confusing, seemingly magical forest from the film’s opening. Rather than being dragged off-screen to a quick death, though, Mina finds safety in a modernist building that doubles as a viewing room for the forest’s monsters.

Mina is introduced to her new home’s other inhabitants: Ciara (Georgina Campbell), a caring woman whose husband tried to escape their mystical forest prison just a few days before Mina showed up; Daniel (Oliver Finnegan), an impulsive and increasingly agitated young Irish lad; and Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), an older professor who takes it upon herself to teach her fellow humans the rules they need to know to survive. Together, the four try to not only stay alive, but also test the boundaries of their shared situation in the hopes of one day breaking free of it.

Based on the novel of the same name by A. M. Shine, The Watchers is filled with potentially compelling ideas, but it never does anything with any of them. Whether it be Mina’s unresolved trauma over her mother’s death or its repeated images of humans and animals in cages, the film has a habit of introducing new paths to delve into themes of identity and perspective, only to leave them relatively unexplored.

The movie doesn’t even fully capitalize on the all too relatable, deeply human fear of being watched, despite it being baked into its very premise. It’s too busy explaining the folk origins of its monsters and the needlessly convoluted backstory of the building they use to observe The Watchers’ human prisoners.

For a movie that isn’t afraid to crank up its sound mix whenever it needs you to feel the arrival of its oft-unseen monsters, The Watchers ultimately comes across as far too muted and subdued for its own good. It proves incapable of knowing which pieces of information are actually necessary to tell its story — relentlessly clarifying so many different pieces of its plot that didn’t need to be explained until the entire film has finally emerged as its least mysterious and most boring self.

Eli Arenson’s cinematography is simultaneously warm and ominous — providing the film with a visual richness that it mostly wastes. Shyamalan, for her part, proves yet again that she has an eye for interesting angles and camera movements that, when delivered at the right moment, have the power to both impress and disorient you.

It’s a film that doesn’t know how to use all the tools it has at its disposal, and so it offers a viewing experience that is as unsatisfying as it is lacking in any worthwhile purpose or point.

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