The Watchers Review: Psychological Drama Heralds The Arrival Of Ishana Night Shyamalan

The Watchers Review: This is a film by a first-time director who clearly knows how crucial the location is. Ishana Shyamalan makes the most of it until the big twist in the end pushes the film in an all-too-familiar direction.

The Watchers Review: Psychological Drama Heralds The Arrival Of Ishana Night Shyamalan

A still from The Watchers. (courtesy: YouTube)

In her directorial debut, Ishana Night Shyamalan crafts a cinematic confluence of Irish folkloric horror and psychological drama. She overlays what emerges from that combination with stylistic norms inherited from her producer-director-screenwriter father whose chequered career has drawn sustenance from unusual conceits and confounding twists.

Working with a group of fully clued-in actors who bring an intriguing and contrasting sets of behavioural impulses to the stimuli around them, Ishana Shyamalan conjures up a world reminiscent of the ones audiences have encountered in films such as Signs and The Village, both made over two decades ago.

She crafts a dark, eerie atmosphere and locates within it a supernatural tale littered with surprising detours. Here, humans are at the receiving end of the malefic gaze of a breed of voyeuristic creatures who keep an eye on them after sundown without revealing their own ominous presence.

The Watchers, produced by Manoj Night Shyamalan and adapted by the director herself from Irish writer A.M. Shine's 2022 novel of the same name, heralds the arrival of a filmmaker with a future. The film is anything but perfect but has elements that click into place often enough for the effort not to be deemed a missed opportunity.

The acting performances, led by a stellar show by Dakota Fanning as a woman lost in the woods, literally and metaphorically, are orchestrated to complement the director's vision of a world where survival is a daily challenge and the fear of the unknown stalks a group of trapped individuals.

The Watchers is replete with visual and narrative flourishes that range from the strikingly salutary to the abjectly awkward, from the revelatory to the obfuscatory. Between the two extreme ends, the 102-minute film has solidly executed passages, especially in its first hour, that deliver the goods.

The film tangentially touches upon larger and urgent themes that elevate the generic exercise to a deep and essential psychological probe into mysteries of the woods, the complexities of the human mind and mankind's eternal struggle to co-exist with creatures that dwell outside of graspable domains.

Mina (Dakota Fanning), an American who lives in Galway, Ireland, works in a pet shop. She is charged with delivering a golden conure to the zoo in Belfast. As she drives deep inside a forest in western Ireland, her GPS dies on and her car breaks down.

With only the talking parakeet for company, she decides to look for help in the woods. She runs into an older woman, Madeline (Olwen Fouere), who guides her into a bunker-like closed space called the 'Coop' where Mina meets two strangers, Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan).

The titular Watchers, mysterious unseen creatures who, during the day, disappear into a network of subterranean tunnels collectively called the Burrows because they are averse to sunlight, observe the quartet from beyond a two-way mirror as the humans eat, dance and watch a reality show titled Lair of Love. The world building is near-perfect.

Madeline lays down strict rules for the occupants of the Coop because every move is fraught with risk. Anybody who has dared to venture out into the forest after nightfall has not returned. Ciara and Daniel have been in the woods for months but have never seen the Watchers, only felt their fell presence.

Mina, still dealing with the guilt that she has borne since the death of her mother 15 years ago, isn't amenable to Madeline's control. The past haunts her. So, could being lost in the woods be the beginning of a process of healing? Or could this be just another manifestation of the fragile and fickle state of her mind?

When the gets to the point where the presence and the purpose of the Watchers is explained and the humans come face to face with the creatures, the film goes into a downward spiral. If it still manages to hold on to the bigger realities that it seeks to stress upon, it is because of the groundwork done in the earlier parts of the film.

At the outset of the film, information is casually transmitted to the audience about Ireland's dwindling tree cover and the resultant loss of native forests. The forest in which Mina is lost hides many a secret that are in danger of disappearing pretty much like the Watchers do when sunlight beats down on the foliage.

Madeline, Ciara and Daniel are repositories of slivers of knowledge that they have been able to collect and preserve during the time that they have been cooped up, surviving against the debilitating fear of annihilation.

Daniel is a sort of a hunter-gatherer. He goes out into the forest during the day to get food. Ciara has learnt enough about the plants, flowers and herbs in the jungle to be able to apprise Mina of their therapeutic qualities.

And, of course, Madeline has been in the forest much longer than anybody else. She is acutely aware of the dangers lurking in the depths of the darkness that engulfs the woods when the sun goes down and Watchers become active.

Humans as helpless pets watched by ravenous creatures whose wrath is first felt when Mina crosses the line on one occasion. On another, we see a man being dragged away into the forest by the beings that we only hear about and sense via the evocative sound design that assembles unfathomable noises emanating from all around and, at times, from within the Coop itself.

Cinematographer Eli Arenson (who shot the Icelandic folk horror film Lamb a couple of years ago) has a keen awareness of the spaces that The Watchers plays out in. He does a fantastic job of incorporating the essential parts of the setting into his frames and maximising their impact with his choice of angles, movements and lighting.

This is a film by a first-time director who clearly knows how crucial the location is. Ishana Shyamalan makes the most of it until the big twist in the end pushes the film in an all-too-familiar direction.

The Watchers starts on an extremely promising note. But only a small fraction of the anticipation that it raises is satiated. Be that as it may, there is just enough in the shadows that the director creates to make sizeable chunks of the film watchable, even immersive.

The portions that fall short do pull the venture down but without letting us lose sight of the fact that this is the work of a director to watch especially if she can break away from the creative moorings bequeathed to her and carve her own niche as a purveyor of screen horror.


Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell, Oliver Finnegan and Olwen Fouere


Ishana Night Shyamalan