Movie review: A forest of missed potential in ‘The Watchers’

“The Watchers” begins with an introduction to an unmapped forest of western Ireland, said to draw people in and never let them leave.

So when we see Mina (Dakota Fanning) driving on a barely existing path in the middle of the woods and her vehicle dies, we don’t feel her anxiety, until she begins hearing strange sounds and finds herself running after a strange woman to an ominous structure among the trees.

Inside, three people fill her in on their peril. Essentially, it’s a bit like the Hotel California — you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave — especially at night, when you better be locked in the bunker, or whatever is outside will kill you.

I say bunker, but it’s more like a cage, with one-way glass making it so that the beings on the outside can come every night and watch (hence the name) the humans stuck inside, who can’t see out.

For a moment, I wondered if the story could be some sort of commentary on the film industry, and the demanding, unseen watchers (us) on the other side of the screen. But no, this story pulls from ancient folklore. Without giving anything away, there are twists that one might expect from a project associated with the Shyamalan name.

Pulling from the suspenseful source material of A.M. Shine’s horror novel, Ishana Night Shyamalan (daughter of M. Night Shyamalan) captures an atmosphere full of dread. There are a few jump scares, usually achieved through sheer volume, and I really appreciate her not showing too much of the creatures outside of the glass early and destroying the mystery surrounding them.

But it’s her feature directorial debut, and it shows at times, particularly in how everything is overly explained along the way; by answering every question the audience might have, the story goes from mysterious to merely interesting, losing its hook. And the more it gets spelled out, the more the plot looks like Indiana roads — riddled with holes that are hard to ignore.

In the lead role, Fanning shows Mina as a woman with a traumatic past, floating through life, visibly bored or depressed, maybe both. But no matter how much magic and terror and sadness she encounters throughout the story, she always has that same look on her face. I found it difficult to feel enchanted by the otherworldly when the lead didn’t appear to be.

And without building relationships with the other three in the bunker, or developing their backstories in a meaningful way, the audience is unlikely to feel invested in their struggles.

In the end, “The Watchers” feels like a quick tale you might hear around a campfire — rich in atmosphere but fading quickly into the night.


Scott McDaniel is an assistant professor of journalism at Franklin College. He lives in Bargersville with his wife and three kids.