Capsule Review: The Watchers (2024) – Ishana Night Shyamalan’s Otherwise Visually Atmospheric Feature-Length Debut Suffers From Ponderous Storytelling

The Watchers marks the feature-length debut of Ishana Night Shyamalan, the daughter of M. Night Shyamalan who already had her stint directing Apple TV+’s Servant. Like her father, she seems to inherit the same worst tendencies of relying on expository-heavy scenarios to pad her story which she adapted from A.M. Shine’s novel of the same name. It’s frustrating to the point it veers off course but I’ll talk about that later.

First, the goods: The movie gets off to a creepy start as we see a panicked man trying to find his way out of the forest while being terrorised by an unseen force of evil. Shyamalan successfully captures the ominous dread during the opening scene and continues to sustain largely the same momentum in the first half of the movie. The story also introduces our main protagonist, Mina (Dakota Fanning), who works in a pet shop in Ireland. When she is tasked to deliver a caged bright yellow parrot to a buyer, she finds herself losing direction in a forest. Her car even breaks down, forcing her to go on foot with the bird she later nicknamed “Darwin”.

Then, something strange happens. She first comes across an elderly stranger named Madeline (Olwen Fouéré) and later, two more of them including Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) inside a glass-walled shelter deep inside the forest. As the sun falls and the night takes over, Madeline along with Ciara and Daniel tells Mina there are a few rules that need to be followed to stay alive.

The title in question refers to the unseen creatures of the night watching each of their moves in the shelter, which effectively adds to the mystery. It’s all intriguing at first, suggesting something sinister is lurking within the darkness. Credits go to Shyamalan and cinematographer Eli Arenson for capturing the untouched beauty and strangely mythical feel of the forest shot on location in Wicklow, Ireland. She also deserves mention for her atmospheric visual styling and camera placements that evoke a sense of claustrophobic tension.

But as the story leans closer to the truth, Shyamalan drops the ball when things start to grow heavy-handed. The mystery eventually uncovers the existence of the titular creatures but instead of hitting us with a satisfying payoff, the movie chooses to soft-pedal its reveals with clunky and even questionable moments. The way she overexplains things on how and why things happen in the first place makes the story less interesting. Shyamalan also adopts her father’s (in)famous twist ending but what I have here is disappointingly underwhelming.

As for the cast, Dakota Fanning does her best to play a character suffering from a past trauma that she has a tough time letting go. But there’s only so much she can do with a sloppy screenplay while the rest of the characters including Olwen Fouéré, Georgina Campbell and Oliver Finnegan bring adequate support to their otherwise one-dimensional roles.

Frankly, The Watchers has so much potential since Ishana Night Shyamalan has some of her father’s best directorial styles and visual panache from building a promising setup to generating suspenseful moments. If only the storytelling and pacing were handled with better care, we might have a solid directorial debut here.