The Watchers Review: Ishana Shyamalan’s Directorial Debut Is An Intense Winner If You Don’t Question The Plot At All

Movies

The name Shyamalan carries a whole lot of heft in Hollywood these days, thanks to the blockbuster career of genre-friendly filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, whose 1999 breakthrough The Sixth Sense is still considered one of the best horror movies in existence. So it’s no minor feat for daughter Ishana Shyamalan to step up to the directorial plate with her haunting and mood-driven debut feature The Watchers, which successfully delivers ample chills and twisty thrills, but starts to easily fall apart once plot points are put under any sort of scrutiny.

The Watchers

Mina pressing her ear against the mirrored wall of The Coop in The Watchers

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Release Date: June 7, 2024

Directed By: Ishana Shyamalan

Written By: Ishana Shyamalan

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Georgina Campbell, Olwen Fouéré, Oliver Finnegan

Rating: PG-13 for violence, terror and some thematic elements

Runtime: 102 minutes

The horror genre is already filled to the brim with movies about characters facing off against unfamiliar or harrowing elements within seemingly never-ending forests, to the point where a movie like Cabin in the Woods not only exists, but is a subgenre pillar in and of itself. So with everything from Friday the 13th to Evil Dead to The Witch having come before it, The Watchers was already entering the fray with a slight disadvantage.

In the hands of a filmmaker whose lineage wasn’t so noteworthy in Hollywood, The Watchers possibly would have felt as generic and unrecognizable as many of the singular trees within its central forest. But Ishana Shyamalan has already put in quite a bit of on-site work with her Oscar-nominated pops, handling second-unit direction on Old and Knock at the Cabin, as well as writing, directing and producing for his Apple TV+ series Servant.

While it may not seem entirely fair to put so much of the onus on the first-time helmer here, the success of The Watchers is entirely beholden to her skillset, given the limited number of cast members combined with the limited range of situations for the actors to react to and get emotional about. As a director, I think Ishana Shyamalan bears ripe and juicy horror fruits, but as a storyteller (or at the very least, a novel adapter), there’s room for growth.

The Watchers’ high-concept hook is interesting enough to make early issues easy to ignore.

The Watchers is not a complicated movie to elevator-pitch to someone, and its mystery-cloaked story is very easy to get sucked into from the jump. Dakota Fanning portrays the mostly aimless artist and pet shop worker Mina, who resides in Ireland and is still not completely over the hump of a childhood tragedy that has strained Mina’s relationship with her sister. She’s the kind of character who has to be told more than once not to vape in front of the animals.

Mina gets tasked with delivering a sassy parrot to an unidentified recipient, and somehow winds up in the middle of a shockingly thick copse of trees, where her car and electronic devices suddenly shut off. And it also happens to be the place where audiences should turn off the “But what about this?” part of their brains, at least until the credits are deep into the visual effects team.

From here, Mina gets acquainted with the film’s other promotable characters after being invited into the big room with the one-way mirrored wall at the heart of the marketing visuals. The setting, which is dubbed The Coop, is the current home of the rule-obsessed den mother Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), the permanently in-shock Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and the rebellious youngin Daniel (Oliver Finnegan). Their entire existence is gathering necessities during the day, and spending the evenings as entertainment for mysterious spectating creatures.

Ishana Shyamalan’s screenplay is too faithful an adaptation of A.M. Shine’s novel and doesn’t fix its problems.

For all the popularity and acclaim that A.M. Shine’s same-titled 2022 novel earned upon its release, the book didn’t fare quite as well with readers who questioned the myriad mysteries and details built into the forest setting and its inhabitants. And while certain details were obviously altered in the process of adapting the book to the screen, Shyamalan’s screenplay is arguably far too faithful to the source material to 100% work as a live-action story.

Similar to the stakes for a locked-room video game, the fun of The Watchers is learning what the others know and gaining as much information as possible about what’s happening, and why things are the way they are. “Why are they trapped? Where did the Coop come from? How will they get out?” And in many ways, getting these kinds of details and reveals on the page is fairly easy for the imagination to accept.

But when those ideas arrive in three-dimensional form, it becomes far easier to pick apart anything that isn’t flush with the story elements already laid out. And in that respect, I only wish Ishana Shyamalan found ways to radically advance and supercede A.M. Shine’s novel, rather than keeping to it as faithfully as she did.

The Watchers does what a Shyamalan movie is expected to do, and does it well, but with too many unanswered questions.

As it goes with any kind of mystery-driven horror, the fewer details known ahead of time, the better. And that idea goes double for anything crafted by the Shyamalan family. And for those who are in theater lines on opening night for everything M. Night puts out, The Watchers will feel very familiar in the best way, like trying on a new favorite pair of jeans (that just might happen to kill you if you button them wrong). The atmosphere and pacing are key to a plot like this, and things move along briskly enough to keep those plot questions at bay for long stretches.

Also similar to many entries in her father’s filmography, Ishana Shyamalan’s The Watchers heads into some unexpected territory in its back half, particularly in the final act. And similar to the bulk of what came before the final act, things played out in successfully unsettling and largely unexpected ways. Some people will see it all coming, and some won’t even know what’s happening after all is said and done.

But for a movie with such a simple lay-up of a plotline, The Watchers‘ story expands in ways where logic and understanding are stretched extremely thin, and not enough information is ever offered up regarding some very key elements to the story. To the point where nearly every single element, from Mina’s backstory to Ciara’s mental state to Madeline’s guidance, just stops making sense if the right question is asked. Not the worst cinema sin, but when that question so often starts with, “How on Earth…?” it’s not so easily forgivable.

Thankfully, Ishana Shyamalan imbues The Watchers with high levels of creepiness throughout, and has more than enough skills behind the camera to keep audiences invested in the woodsy weirdness. I truly cannot wait to see where her career goes next, and I’ll be adding some cushioning to the edge of my seat in the meantime.

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