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The Watchers review: a tedious disappointment

Dakota Fanning stands in front of a mirror in The Watchers.
The Watchers
“The Watchers is a disappointing folk horror thriller that never lives up to its own potential.”
  • A scarily effective cold open
  • Eli Arenson's moody cinematography
  • An overreliance on clunky exposition dumps
  • An uninteresting cast of characters
  • A story that never goes anywhere particularly compelling

Here is a film that has a lot on its mind, but little to say. The Watchers, the feature directorial debut from writer-director Ishana Night Shyamalan, is a folk horror drama that feels both deeply indebted to the work of the filmmaker’s father, M. Night Shyamalan, and entirely its own. In case her episodes of Apple TV+‘s Servant hadn’t already done so, The Watchers proves that Shyamalan is a director with a clear, steady eye and a useful talent for creating palpable atmosphere on-screen. In The Watchers‘ opening moments, which follow a terrified backpacker as he tries unsuccessfully to escape a dark forest before being dragged away by an unseen monster, Shyamalan’s skills are on full display.

The film’s killer prologue effectively lays the foundation for a gothic thriller brimming with spooky visuals and nerve-shredding tension. That’s not what Shyamalan has in mind for The Watchers, though, which opens so many promising doors for itself and yet chooses to step through all of the least interesting ones. It’s a film that, much like the unlucky characters at the center of its story, starts its journey going confidently in the right direction, only to take one too many wrong turns and end up lost in the middle of nowhere.

Four people stand in a viewing room in The Watchers.
Warner Bros. Pictures

The Watchers follows up its chilling cold open with a brief introduction of its protagonist, Mina (Dakota Fanning), an American working at a pet store in Dublin whose solemn attitude is the result of her lingering guilt over a tragic childhood accident. After she’s asked to deliver a rare bird for work, Mina finds herself stranded in the same confusing, seemingly magical forest from The Watchers‘ opening. Rather than being dragged off-screen to a quick death, though, Mina finds safety in the form of a modernist building that doubles as a viewing room for the forest’s monsters, who like to come out at night and observe the human occupants they keep trapped in the space like animals in a cage.

Once safe, 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 all 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.

The Watchers‘ strange story presents it with ample opportunities to make you sit on the edge of your seat. However, while there are a few instances when Shyamalan uses the atmosphere established in the film’s introductory moments to do just that, The Watchers repeatedly fails to build any substantial tension. Instead of delivering one terrifying moment after another, the film spends its second and third acts telling you about its characters’ pasts and the history of the dangerous place they’ve found themselves in. The film’s effectiveness depends entirely on its ability to communicate new information as elegantly as possible. Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s screenplay relies almost solely on clunky exposition dumps that render its characters robotic and one-note and make it impossible for it to sustain whatever momentum it occasionally generates.

Georgina Campbell looks to the side in fear in The Watchers.
Warner Bros. Pictures

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.

That wouldn’t necessarily be as much of a problem as it is if the film had the wisdom to make the most of its various plot twists and reveals, but it doesn’t. Everything is played with such an unwaveringly straight face, particularly in The Watchers‘ drawn-out final third, that the potential drama of certain moments is utterly lost. 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.

Georgina Campbell and Dakota Fanning walk through the woods together in The Watchers.
Warner Bros. Pictures

The Watchers‘ problems are made even more frustrating by how well so many aspects of it are otherwise executed. 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. The choices she makes on the page don’t feel nearly as well-considered as those she makes behind the camera, though, and that disconnect is at the root of so many of The Watchers‘ problems. 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.

The Watchers is now playing in theaters.

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Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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