The Watchers might be a compelling thriller if it wasn’t so bafflingly backward

Mina (Dakota Fanning) holds up a lighter with the flame lighting her face as she explores a dark cavern in Ishana Night Shyamalan’s The Watchers
Image: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

Ishana Night Shyamalan’s directorial debut is built around storytelling instincts turned in the wrong directions

An important thing to know going into The Watchers, the feature directorial debut of Ishana Night Shyamalan, is that it isn’t a horror movie — it’s folkloric fantasy. That distinction will only matter to people who watched an initial trailer and walk in expecting a focus on scares and violence, instead of on unpacking the mystery and history around the movie’s titular Watchers. Anyone who goes in with the wrong expectations will probably just find The Watchers baffling. It has its share of creepy moments, rising tension, and sudden-blast-of-music jump scares, but as a suspense story, it fizzles out surprisingly early.

That may be because the story beats are lined up in a bewildering order, guaranteed to drop the movie’s tension from one act to the next instead of escalating it. While it’d be difficult for any movie to live up to The Watchers’ opening premise, Shyamalan’s version of A.M. Shine’s 2022 novel does a particularly poor job of paying off the early promise of the story’s setup.

Mina (Dakota Fanning) and Ciara (Georgina Campbell) walk through a dark forest in Ishana Night Shyamalan’s The Watchers
Image: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

The premise is unusual enough to be intriguing: Mina (Dakota Fanning), a Galwegian pet store worker still harboring deep emotions about her mother’s death 15 years earlier, gets lost in a forest, where she’s clearly being manipulated by beings with supernatural powers. She eventually reaches a glass-fronted shelter roughly the size of a shipping trailer, where three other people: Ciara (Georgina Campbell), Daniel (Oliver Finnegan), and Madeline (Olwen Fouéré) have been living. At night, they lock themselves into the shelter (which they call “the Coop”) and unseen creatures come to stare at them. During the day, the creatures hide in burrows, and the captives are free to roam the forest — but they believe that if they go too far and get caught outside at night, their captors will kill them.

Most of The Watchers’ appeal comes from all the mysteries in this setup: wondering what the Watchers are and what they want, what secrets the other three captives are hiding, who will inevitably crack first under the pressure the eerie situation puts the group under, and how Mina’s arrival will upset the status quo. The sharp, high-contrast cinematography (from Lamb’s Eli Arenson) gives these opening chapters a winningly oppressive look, with the golden glow of the Coop extending out into the deep blues and blacks of the nighttime woods. The constant effect of the Coop’s mirrored wall gives the characters an eerie set of duplicates hovering nearby at all times, which Shyamalan and Arenson use to create a hyper-real but still fable-like atmosphere that’s often haunting and unsettling.

The four leads from Ishana Night Shyamalan’s The Watchers (Olwen Fouere, Oliver Finnegan, Dakota Fanning, and Georgina Campbell) stand side by side in front of a ceiling-to-floor mirror, all looking over their shoulders, with their mirror images in front of them
Image: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

One visual conceit in particular — foregrounding the mirror images, while diminishing the actual characters and turning them into afterthoughts — is a clever, eerie trick that hints at the film’s larger theme, around duplication. Mina’s parrot, a golden conure, periodically repeats things she says. Mina has a twin (also played by Fanning), who she’s pushed out of her life. Early on, Mina starts seeing an image of herself as a little girl off in the woods, an initial hint of the Watchers’ powers and intentions. But that theme never fully coheres in a satisfying or surprising element: It’s all scattered foreshadowing for a reveal that’s given away early, then repeated over and over in a way that keeps diminishing its impact.

Everything about The Watchers’ story and structure seems designed for exactly that sense of diminishing returns. The most compelling mysteries are quickly resolved, mostly through exposition. The tensest part of the movie is similarly resolved long before most cinephiles would expect it to, giving way to more exposition. The film’s third act largely consists of research, reading, and characters telling each other things the audience already knows, but in portentous tones, as if that might add significance. It’s honestly confusing, waiting for the other shoe to drop, then realizing there is no other shoe, just a protracted unraveling of the movie’s initial tension.

Mina (Dakota Fanning) stands with her cheek pressed up against a mirror in Ishana Night Shyamalan’s The Watchers
Image: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

In theory, the structure could be viewed as a shift from general stakes to personal ones, and from a broad threat to a specific one. In practice, the movie lets its scariest elements go long before the finale, and replaces them with a tediously slow procedural building up to a poorly paced, badly mismanaged conversation. There’s real potential in the story elements here, but they all seem to come in the wrong order, and in some cases, in the wrong locale. It’s as if Shyamalan is trying to tell a story that’s distinctive, different, and unpredictable, but winds up with something mostly distinctive in how badly it misses the basic elements of a thriller.

It’s easy to imagine a version of this film structured in the opposite order, where a character learns enough about the Watchers’ history and intent to make them more frightening when they appear, and the “trapped in the Coop” scenario lasts longer, feels more central, and is allowed to build the suspense up to the breaking point. It’s much harder to understand how anyone thought a movie could hold on to an audience once all the peril gives way to characters giving speeches and watching videos.

Maybe going in with those expectations in mind will help: When a story is built entirely out of fear of the unknown, it’s preposterously difficult to stick the landing without eventually disappointing the audience. But even forewarned and forearmed, The Watchers is a strange experience, like watching a fairly solid supernatural suspense movie, then spending half an hour reading the footnotes.

The Watchers is in theaters now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.