Review: The Watchers Offers a Stylish, if Over-Explained, Debut Thriller Starring Dakota Fanning

Although not exactly new to directing, Ishana Night Shyamalan (daughter of M. Night Shyamalan, who is a producer on this film) marks her feature film debut with an adaptation of A.M. Shine’s The Watchers. The film is a dark fantasy work that follows 28-year-old American artist Mina (Dakota Fanning), living in Ireland and driving an exotic bird to a zoo from the pet store where she works. The bird talks—more precisely, it repeats her words back to her—and that’s the first of many clues we get that the film is going to include themes about mimicry, which leads to thoughts on identity, how self-reflection can lead to self-loathing, guilt, and feel free to go down that rabbit hole in your own time. It’s a clever yet obvious device that is perhaps a bit too on the nose, and that’s also my assessment of the film as a whole, which is beautifully realized and overly explained to such a degree that I never once had to use my brain.

While she’s driving through a dense forest, Mina’s car breaks down just as the sun is beginning to set. Suddenly she sees a woman named Madeline (Olwen Fouéré, Mandy, The Northman) who directs her toward a concrete bunker known as the Coop. The door is quickly closed and bolted shut, and Mina finds herself trapped inside the claustrophobic space with Madeline, Ciara (Georgina Campbell, Barbarian), and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan), with one of the walls of the bunker being nothing but glass that they can’t see out of with the lights on, which they always are. Immediately, chilling screams erupt from outside and the other three force Mina to stand side-by-side with them in front of the glass so they can be observed by unseen creatures known as Watchers. The humans can go outside when the sun is out, but the Watchers rule the night, when they come out of a deep pit to watch their human captives for reasons we don’t quite understand.

Mina is taught the rules of living this way, presumably for the rest of her life, but as we learn from flashbacks to her childhood, Mina is a bit of a rule-breaker—something she feels guilty about after a great tragedy in her life 15 years earlier. Her twin sister Lucy (Dracula fans should recognize the names Mina and Lucy, but I’m not sure if there’s some deeper meaning in this story) has been leaving her countless messages to try to reconnect, but Mina ignores her, seemingly out of shame. One wonders if being forced to look at what is effectively a two-way mirror reflection of herself for hours in front of the Watchers makes her think of her sister and then immediately bad about herself. Whatever it does to her psyche, it doesn’t take long for Mina to start looking for a way out of this predicament, which leads to her breaking the group’s rules left and right.

Not exactly subtle in its execution, we find out that Madeline is a bit of an expert in Irish folklore and has a few ideas about what these Watchers actually are, which turns Shyamalan’s self-adapted story in something more akin to folk horror than the type of scary film designed to make you jump out of your seat every couple of minutes (the films is PG-13, for those who judge, for stupid reasons), and her commitment to a creepy, anxiety-laden, deeply atmospheric movie is appreciated, even when it doesn’t always work. The themes of mimics and observing a version of yourself get pretty heavy handed at times, to the point where the only thing that kept me from abandoning all hope was Fanning’s committed performance.

I’m sure many are wondering if Shyamalan follows in her father’s footsteps as far as twist endings; I’d have to say she does not, although there is something of a reveal near the end that may surprise some. It’s not done in the same vein as M. Night’s signature (and frequently disappointing) “shocking” turns. Also, as much as The Watchers is very much a mystery, the presence of the wise, seemingly all-knowing Madeline character deflates a great deal of the tension and unknown factor thanks to her constant explanation of every new wrinkle in the Watchers’ behavior. At one point in the film, the group finds a hidden bunker full of materials and documents that answer even more questions. The unknown is the scariest thing of all in the real world, but in this world, apparently knowledge is meant to terrify us.

As a first feature, Shyamalan has given us something that displays her technical skills, while also showing us that, as a storyteller, she still has some growing to do. There are worse places to be as a 24-year-old filmmaker having their first movie being distributed by a major studio, I suppose.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.