Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
by Greg Nussen Featured Film Genre Views

The Watchers — Ishana Shyamalan

June 6, 2024

There’s an immediate insecurity to The Watchers, the directorial debut from Ishana Night Shyamalan. Mina (Dakota Fanning), a flatly cynical American decamping in a dead-end pet shop job in Cork, Ireland, vapes and draws inky portraits while narrating on two tracks. In one, she describes the past to an unknown listener, via voiceover, and in the other she describes her present in unnatural asides to a Golden Parakeet named Darwin. It’s as if Shyamalan cannot trust her audience to glean even the slightest information from visuals alone, settling instead on information dumps and, later, clunky bits of zombified lore.

Based on the novel of the same name by A.M. Shine, The Watchers does not take much liberty from its source material. Mina is in Cork for reasons as yet unknown, though it’s clear she is chased and haunted by shame and regret. When not working at her lowly day job, she dons wigs and seduces men at local pubs in ways that briefly recall Scarlett Johansson’s role in Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin. But whatever Mina is playing at is mostly a McGuffin, as the young artist is tasked with delivering Darwin to a potential buyer in Galway, on the western coast, and her forays into male deception are put to the side.

It’s on her brief road journey that we learn Mina lost her mother 15 years ago, that she harbors some degree of guilt for whatever happened to her, and that her identical twin sister is trying to lure her back home, which we learn about through voicemails Mina has apparently listened to so many times she has memorized their cadence. But as soon as Mina’s car enters an unexpected forest, all technology — including her car — breaks down, and she is sucked into a game of impossible survival, and us into a mess of exposition as dense as the forest that surrounds her.

In the cobalt blue and metallic gray night, Mina stumbles upon Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), a witchy and mysterious woman who saves her from certain death by welcoming her into a steel box-like home with a massive, one-sided mirror. There too is Ciara (Georgina Campbell), a traumatized wife convinced her missing husband is still alive, and Danny (Oliver Finnegan, in a buffoonish and overcranked performance), a downcast young man who seems to cope by incessantly mocking their bizarre entrappings. The space itself looks like something of a torture chamber, replete with a pockmarked wooden table, a handful of daybeds, an old VCR-TV combo set, and mismatched chairs. Madeline quickly tells Mina that in order to survive here in the forest, the four must adhere to the rules of “The Watchers” — a breed of alien-like nightwalkers which no one, apparently, has ever actually seen. The rules mostly amount to them not being outside at night, though there are others, and it’s never quite clear what the consequences are.

From then on out The Watchers plays like a decently exciting game of mystery box. Time passes in unusual ways, there are little discoveries of found objects and possible routes out of the forest, and tensions between group members rise and fall. Shyamalan is a young but clearly quite gifted technical filmmaker, utilizing sequences of pounding, intricate sound design and textured, patient edits to build suspense with aplomb. But whether it’s Shine’s book or her own adaptation, the film collapses under too many themes and threads, some of which are given too much time and others not nearly enough.

Though a bit obvious in allegory, the film seems most at home as a horror of ecological revenge. But there are other possible themes here that Shyamalan points to yet never sees through; at times, the film seems to comment on everything from the death-grip of grief and trauma to, possibly, society’s creeping over-reliance on AI technology. Other elements are tantalizingly mentioned, only to never be seen or heard from again. Danny’s “function” in the group is to hunt for food, yet we never see that food nor ever learn how they survive. Apparently, Danny has been there for eight months while Ciara has been for about five, yet neither seems any worse for wear. An early mention of the healing properties of flowers in the area is never mentioned a second time, while Mina’s drawing ability — which seems ripe for payoff later on — seems only present as personality dressing. At one point, two characters get into a fight so bad that it nearly causes half of the group to die, yet the fight is never explained and a brief mention of the group losing its collective grip on reality is never realized in totality.

Regardless, The Watchers does its best to clip along until the final third, when it sputters through two or three false endings and yet more plot twists. One of those twists is indeed surprising and chill-inducing, yet it hardly seems enough to justify 20 minutes of labored plotting to get us there. It feels as if Shyamalan is not sure what story she wants to tell, nor even how she might want to tell it. Abel Korzeniowski’s score is rousing but seems more fit for an Indiana Jones entry rather than a film in which a group of strangers are held captive by murderous forest sprites. Though paced well and decently fun, all of its elements, from performance to lighting, seem pulled from a panoply of different films and ideas, making The Watchers feel unmistakably like the patchwork of a first-time filmmaker, a pastiche of pastiche.

DIRECTOR: Ishana Shyamalan;  CAST: Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell, Oliver Finnegan, Olwen Fouéré;  DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Bros.;  IN THEATERS: June 7;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 42 min.