The Watchers Review: Like Father, Like Daughter

It (sigh) runs in the family

Across 32 years and 15 (soon to be 16) films, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense) has rarely shied away from courting controversy. His films shift between genres and budgets, hitting the highest highs and the lowest lows, drawing accolades on one end and tarnishing his name and reputation on the other. In likely the second greatest twist in a career known for surprise endings, Shyamalan resurrected both his image and his career via relatively contained, self-funded genre efforts like The Visit and last year’s Knock at the Cabin.

However, Shyamalan’s greatest twist isn’t a film or even a career, but his twenty-something daughter, Ishana, following in his footsteps as a filmmaker. It helped that Ishana could apprentice herself to her father, learning the ins and outs of filmmaking without having to attend film school. Directing several episodes of the senior Shyamalan’s under-seen, underappreciated series, Servant, also helped Ishana develop the day-to-day skills needed to lead a weekly television production.

Like the dense and possibly haunted forest at the centre of The Watchers, an adaptation of A.M. Shine’s 2001 provocative folk-horror novel, that’s a long way toward getting to the younger Shyamalan’s sometimes impressive, sometimes frustrating debut as a feature filmmaker. Inheriting many of her father’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker, Ishana’s debut suggests a significantly better grasp for visual storytelling than for screenwriting. She proves herself adept at setting the scene, mood, and atmosphere, delivering a handful of frights, shocks, and scares in the opening 45 minutes equal to any of the finer horror entries of the last few years.

Until the big reveal, though, The Watchers hums along at a relatively tense pace as Mina (Dakota Fanning), an American ex-pat living and working in Ireland, loses herself, literally and figuratively, on a work-related task. Tapped by her pet shop store-owning boss to deliver a rare yellow parrot to Belfast from Galway, Mina attempts to cross a dense and quickly darkening forest.

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By a seemingly unimaginable stroke of luck, Mina crosses paths with an older woman, Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), who hastily beckons her into a concrete shelter before the sun disappears. There, Mina meets two other occupants of the so-called “Coop,” Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan). Madeline introduces Mina to the Coop’s amenities, which include a glass wall through which the watchers, well, watch the inhabitants. She also lays out the rules, which include keeping away from the forest at night and staying out of the tunnels burrowed throughout the woods.

Already set up as both headstrong and guilt-ridden, Mina flaunts the rules almost immediately, venturing out to one of the burrows and uncovering the first of several secrets that inevitably lead to the feral, animalistic watchers and their connection to Irish folklore. There’s also the minor problem that the film struggles to explain: how the watchers find a means of egress before nightfall, keep themselves adequately fed, and have enough water for drinking and bathing. There’s a joke in there somewhere. The Watchers doesn’t bother to explain how the Coop’s occupants survive day-to-day, manage their caloric intake, or how their clothes never seem to get dirty or tattered.

Those are all, individually and collectively, minor, tangential issues, but combined with the second half’s rapid descent into over-explanation and nonsensical drama-draining plot turns, they’re indicative of the younger Shyamalan steadily losing her grasp on her adaptation of Shine’s unwieldy, exposition-heavy novel. After teasing the “watchers” of the title for almost an hour, they make their inevitable, although not inevitably disastrous appearance: lonely, loose-limbed stick figures unlikely to scare anyone over the age of 10. Fault in that regard falls on Shyamalan, her production team (specifically whoever designed the watchers), and an over-ambitious concept undermined by a too-limited budget.

Still, there’s enough promise in The Watchers to suggest qualified praise for Shyamalan’s feature-length debut. Paired with the right screenplay, there’s a better than even chance the younger Shyamalan could become a dependable genre filmmaker, one whose work inspires anticipation and not dread.

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The Watchers opens theatrically on Friday, June 7.



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