It may portend talent, but ‘The Watchers’ is just barely watchable

Georgina Campbell as Ciara and Dakota Fanning as Mina in a scene from the fantasy thriller, ‘The Watchers’.

Georgina Campbell as Ciara and Dakota Fanning as Mina in a scene from the fantasy thriller, ‘The Watchers’.

Published Jun 14, 2024


By Ty Burr

The crab apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“The Watchers” is the debut feature of writer-director Ishana Night Shyamalan but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for the work of M. Night Shyamalan, the film’s producer and the filmmaker’s father.

Shyamalan the elder makes suspense-horror dramas that either give a half-baked idea a fully baked cinematic treatment or vice versa; Shyamalan the daughter’s first feature-length film is half-baked all around.

But she’s only 24 and deserves to be re-evaluated after she’s made a few more movies on her own.

The plot is the usual Shyamalanarama, so much so that viewers who saw M Night’s most recent outing, “Knock at the Cabin”, may experience a frisson of déjà vu.

Mina (Dakota Fanning), a dour American living in Dublin while she wrestles with guilt over a long-ago family tragedy, is told by her boss at a pet shop to deliver a bird to a buyer in Galway, a drive that requires her to cross an eldritch and isolated patch of forest in West Ireland from which we’re informed “no one comes out”.

The film-makers dandle little bits of Hitchcock to tantalise us: that bird in its gilded cage – a lovely orange conure named Darwin – and a few errant “Psycho”-esque strings on the soundtrack.

No such luck. After losing her way in the dense fog of trees, Mina is chased by something that skitters and snarls to a bunker in the middle of nowhere, where three other unlucky souls have holed up.

By day, they’re allowed to wander freely through the forest. By night, they have to return and stand in front of a wall-size one-way mirror while the ravenous beasts outside … watch them.

That’s all; they just watch them. One is reminded of M Night Shyamalan movies that work furiously to scare us with things that aren’t very scary, the lethal tree pollen in “The Happening” at the top of that list.

Exactly who is watching the trapped humans? “The Watchers” teases it out for the longest time, although if you have any knowledge of Celtic folklore, consider yourself a step ahead.

The larger problem is that after a visually expansive opening in which the forest is established as a place of lush, claustrophobic unease, the movie goes inside and pretty much stays inside while its cast endlessly chatters about following “the rules” and whether they’ll be able to get away.

It’s “No Exit” reimagined as an escape room and you’re stuck with your crazy aunt.

The Irish actress and stage director Olwen Fouéré has the role of crazy aunt, as a wild-haired mythology professor named Madeline, who seems to know everything about the creatures outside.

Fouéré is the only person here who realises she’s working with trash, and she bites into her lines with a hammy relish that stays just this side of camp.

The other prisoners are Danny (Oliver Finnegan), a shifty and weak-minded young man, and Ciara, who’s played by Georgina Campbell, the star of 2022’s “Barbarian”.

Dakota Fanning as Mina in a scene from the fantasy thriller, ‘The Watchers’.

That’s a movie to watch if you really want the bejesus scared out of you.

And then there’s Fanning, who in her days as a child actress came on like Bette Davis reincarnated as an 8-year-old, but has struggled to find good roles as an adult. (Her most indelible recent performance came in 2019 as a numbly menacing Squeaky Fromme in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”)

Fanning roots “The Watchers” in Mina’s level-headedness, but there’s only so much she can do when her director is throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.

The tragedy in Mina’s past keeps hinting at an emotional climax that never fully pays off, just as Shyamalan’s visual and contextual playing with the theme of doubles fails to come to a point.

But it does give us a spooky sequence of two Minas at that mirrored window, the line separating image from reality smudged into invisibility.

And when “The Watchers” shows us more than a glimpse of its otherworldly title critters, it hints at an immensity too large for the human mind to contemplate.

At such moments, you realise there’s a talent here. But maybe it’s time for the kid to leave home.

∎ “The Watchers” is showing at cinemas nationwide.