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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘The Watchers’ review: Now they see you



Dakota Fanning, Olwen Fouéré, Georgina Campbell and Oliver Finnegan in “The Watchers” (Warner Bros.)

By Elisabeth Vincentelli


Seeing the name Shyamalan on a movie trailer leads to certain expectations: plot twists, incremental reveals that change the nature of reality, foreboding supernatural vibe. Check, check and check with “The Watchers” — even though in this case the filmmaker isn’t M. Night Shyamalan, of “The Sixth Sense” and “Split” fame, but his daughter Ishana.


After making her debut as a director on “Servant,” an Apple TV+ series, Ishana has moved on to features with this folk-horror tale about a troubled young woman, Mina (Dakota Fanning, fresh from a big turn in the Netflix series “Ripley”), who finds herself stranded when her car breaks down in foreboding Irish woods while she was ferrying a parrot (you read that right) from Galway to Belfast.


Ishana is 24, and “The Watchers” shows that she truly is Jung at heart: At times the movie feels as if an eager undergraduate patched it together from the greatest hits of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, most notably the forest as both physical and psychological place, the mirror as revelator and the presence of the double.


Fine, so this is a lofty way to say that the film is a little bit frightening and a big bit comically grandiose.


As dusk sets in, Mina is rescued from the forest’s terrifying noises and encroaching shadows by Madeline (Olwen Fouere), Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan), who live in a brutalist house where an entire wall is a one-way mirror. This is so that every night, mysterious creatures called the Watchers can observe those who are, in effect, their prisoners; as Madeline tells Mina, whoever goes out after sunset dies. Fleeing at dawn isn’t an option because there is no escape from the forest within a day’s walk.


“The Watchers” is based on a novel by A.M. Shine (a sequel, “Stay in the Light,” comes out in October), and works best when it fully exploits the wonders of sound design to build a feeling of Dolby-enhanced dread. The technique is so effective that the jump scares feel cheap in comparison.


In theory, surveillance and night creeps make for a good scary combo, and in a nice touch the captives’ are stuck watching a DVD of a “Love Island”-like reality series. But as stifling as the atmosphere tries to be, it’s just not gripping enough that plot holes will go unnoticed, especially when the four prisoners make a major discovery that had somehow eluded them for a conveniently long time.


If we go along with the story at all, it’s thanks to Fanning, who resists the temptation of softening the edges of her stock character — a guilt-ridden young woman who hides behind a detached facade because “you wouldn’t like me if you knew the real me” — while also making the standoffish Mina worth caring for. Fanning often deploys an unsentimental reserve that’s very effective from a dramatic standpoint. Here, it provides a steady counterpoint to the predictably bananas plot. Mina may be emotionally shaky, but she turns out to be an anchor nonetheless.


‘The Watchers’: Rated PG-13 for violence and creepy Irish mythology. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. In theaters.

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