The Watchers (2024) Review

The Watchers (2024)
Director: Ishana Night Shyamalan
Screenwriter: Ishana Night Shyamalan
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell, Olwen Fouéré, John Lynch, Oliver Finnegan

2021 folk horror novel “The Watchers“, by Irish writer A.M. Shine, is a challenging book to adapt for the big screen. The plot itself is sparse and at times stretched beyond its limit, with the majority of the story taking place inside our four main characters’ heads – their internal conflicts at times more intriguing than the external supernatural forces that keep them imprisoned in a dense, remote woodland, watching and then hunting them in equally terrifying ways. Molding this tense, atmospheric story into something just as interesting and unsettling on screen requires a deft hand, one that can take a characters’ internal narrative, crucial to the logic of the story, and visualize it on film.

Unfortunately, writer and director Ishana Night Shyamalan, daughter of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, is not that person.

Shyamalan’s adaptation of The Watchers, which is her directorial debut, is largely an incoherent mess completely devoid of tension and stakes. The film misses the mark in every possible way and is riddled with pacing issues, flat performances and some truly baffling story choices. Not even a few compelling yet clumsy attempts at building upon the folklore introduced in the novel can save this film from devolving into utter nonsense.

After an opening scene that appropriately sets the tone of the film by establishing its inability to create suspense, as well as its habit of having characters say random things out loud, to themselves, for no reason other than to dump exposition on us, we are introduced to Mina (Dakota Fanning), an American expat hiding out in Galway, still grieving the death of her mother who died 15 years ago. Mina works in a pet shop, where she rudely vapes in front of the animals, and routinely dodges phone calls from her more adjusted twin sister, Julia, who is also played by Fanning. At night, Mina dons a brunette wig and flirts with men at bars for reasons the movie does not care to explain to us. (If you think Mina pretending to be other people and trying to mimic both her mom and her sister’s voices are oddly specific details that you should pay attention to, don’t worry, because they actually don’t matter and are never brought up again.)

After agreeing to transport a valuable yellow parrot to the Connemara region of Western Ireland, Mina finds herself traveling into a thick forest when her car suddenly stops working. Mina ventures further into the woods for help, but finds a cement building with a large glass window instead. After being ushered inside by an older woman named Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), Mina meets two other occupants, soft-spoken Ciara (Georgina Campbell), whose husband, John (Alistair Brammer), went to find help days ago and has yet to return, and the nervous, jumpy Daniel (Oliver Finnegan), who explain the rules to her. Outside, in the forest, there are mysterious creatures they call ‘the watchers,’ who observe the group through the mirrored glass every night. The watchers cannot surface during the day, but will kill anyone caught outside the building, called The Coop, once the sun goes down. The three of them have been imprisoned here for months, with little hope of getting out. Intent on saving herself, Mina eventually sets out to discover exactly what the watchers are so she can return home – no matter how many of their rules she has to break in the process.

Ishana Night Shyamalan’s script is the weakest part of The Watchers, lacking both complexity and nuance. Characters spout the most contrived dialog imaginable with the sole purpose of telling us things about themselves that the movie doesn’t take the time to show us. Instead of trusting Dakota Fanning to act confused or scared, the script just has her say things like “What is it?” or “What’s happening?” every five minutes. Instead of conveying the passage of time through contextual clues, like maybe snow falling on the ground, Mina just tells us via narration that months have passed. Instead of showing us how character dynamics are shifting, Mina, again, just says that everyone is beginning to crack. Shyamalan’s obvious insecurity about her ability to get her point across comes off as a distrust in each of us as her audience. When a trap door is revealed underneath a rug in the Coop, she makes sure to have one of the characters tell us that it is, in fact, a trap door, lest we are too stupid to know that even though we are looking right at it.

The script also lacks any kind of character development, and every single performance suffers because of it – there is nothing for them to go off. Dakota Fanning is completely flat and one-note, seemingly unable to project any emotion other than sheer boredom. Most of the time, it feels like she isn’t even trying. When Daniel locks both Madeline and Mina out of the Coop, because he is supposedly sick of living underneath Madeline’s domineering leadership, even though she isn’t ever shown as being all that strict or cruel, Mina bangs on the door with all the strength she can muster, which is basically none, and tells him she doesn’t want to die. Except she says it in a way that makes it feel like she can’t believe she’s being forced to say such cringe-worthy dialog, which is honestly fair enough. We never get a sense of who these people are, what they want, what their flaws are, what makes them tick. Most excruciatingly, their relationships with each other are paper thin at best. The character who suffers the most from this is Madeline, who is also the most important. Without properly setting up her character, the entire third act falls apart.

Even story elements that are wholly unique to the film, elements that get the wheels in our heads turning, don’t provide any answers in the end. Every time you think you’ve figured something out, you’re left disappointed. For instance, mirrors are important in The Watchers. At night, when the watchers observe their pets, the window in the Coop turns into a mirror – the only thing Ciaran, Madeline, Daniel, and Mina can see is themselves. The idea of having a double, a mimic, is intriguing, but the movie fails to effectively do anything with it. Even the film’s long-expected twist feels unearned because Shyamalan spends all of her time setting up red herrings.

The costuming and set design also work together to obscure rather than reveal. Madeline’s stylish coat, black dress and boots are fashionable for sure, but don’t say anything meaningful about who she is and they certainly don’t seem like something someone living out in the woods would be wearing. Everyone’s outfits look brand new, actually. If this terrifying situation has taken any toll on them at all, it’s impossible to tell. Set-wise, the Coop is furnished with a phonograph and an old Television from the 1950s for some reason, which looks cool but serves no purpose.

Because the characters don’t seem affected by their circumstances, it’s impossible to feel any sense of urgency or dread. The emotional stakes are simply non-existent. Characters just meander around the woods, seemingly unbothered by the fact that if they’re caught outside when the sun goes down, they’re as good as dead. Even a scene that should be heartbreaking and emotional feels like such a slog to get through, Shyamalan struggling to pull any kind of emotion of out her actors.

The sound design and score do manage to elevate the material in one striking scene where Mina and Madeline are hiding in the woods from the watchers. And though the CGI leaves a lot to be desired, finally getting a glimpse of these mysterious creatures is a welcomed and delightfully creepy sight.

The Watchers simply does not work on any level. Shyamalan doesn’t at this moment seem to have the capabilities as a filmmaker to handle such a big project. As an adaptation, the film strips the story of everything that made it such a compelling novel. That’s not to indicate that Shyamalan doesn’t show any promise – there’s a good movie lurking deep below the surface of The Watchers – just that she is going to have to step up her game if she ever wants to get out from the under the shadow of her father.

Score: 2/24

Rating: 0.5 out of 5.

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