The Watchers Review: Ishana Night Shyamalan's Nightmarish Folktale Is An Uneven But Promising Debut

The notion of seeing the "Shyamalan" name attached to any given title has always been as fascinating a journey as the films themselves. Anyone who was (unfairly) crowned "The Next Spielberg" at such an early juncture was probably doomed to have that follow them for the rest of their career, but M. Night Shyamalan managed to rewrite his own ending multiple times over, improbably enough: first weathering his status as an up-and-coming visionary, then becoming something of a pariah through the inevitable dry spell that seemed to cement his reputation, and finally culminating with several stripped-down, yet quintessentially Shyamalan hits in a row. Perhaps it's only fitting, then, that the next phase in this twisting odyssey has now arrived — this time, in the form of the next generation of Shyamalan storytellers.

Ishana Night Shyamalan's feature debut "The Watchers" will inevitably draw comparisons to her father's body of work (who served as the second-unit director on the production, as revealed in her interview with /News here), though that appears to be a feature rather than a bug. After a cold open following a panicking victim lost in the woods of Western Ireland that immediately sets the tone, the atmospheric horror flick centers around the cold and distant Mina (Dakota Fanning) who, wouldn't you know it, spends the entire story plagued by her inability to do right by one of her parents. Clearly running away from her guilt over this traumatic childhood incident, her only companion is a parrot she names Darwin that she repeatedly (and clumsily) confesses her backstory to in drips and drabs throughout the early going. When she inevitably ends up in the same foggy forest with supernatural shapes and sounds dogging her every step, her only means of salvation arrives in a trio of strangers trapped in a bizarre bunker called "The Coop" ... complete with a one-way mirror taking up an entire wall of this prison, turning her into a spectacle for the amusement of "watchers" that are seldom seen, but always heard.

If this sounds like a bonkers premise perfectly fit for the elder Shyamalan, that's by design. Adapted from author A.M. Shine's novel of the same name, the movie leans directly into a wealth of influences spanning everything from "The Village" to "The Witch" to, of all things, trashy reality shows like "Love Island." It doesn't take long, however, for any surface-level similarities to give way to a fresh and frightening effort as potent, unsettling, and nightmarish as any in recent memory — but one that's also undercut by a few too many rookie mistakes. Still, even these shortcomings only hint at greater things in store from the 24-year-old director.

Ishana Night Shyamalan proves to be a natural with The Watchers

Even for those who come away from "The Watchers" at a bit of an emotional remove, there's no denying the fact that Ishana Night Shyamalan knows exactly what she's doing behind the camera. Having honed her skills as a director on several episodes of M. Night Shyamalan's Apple TV+ series "Servant," this nepo-baby privilege has done wonders in putting her breakthrough film head and shoulders above much of its contemporaries. Where her father tends to command the screen in a way that calls attention to its own form, Ishana Night opts for a constantly roving lens that knows precisely when to cut away for maximum tension (all due credit to editor Job ter Burg). This is a dark movie, literally speaking, punctuated by bursts of pallid, sicky yellows and deep shadows from cinematographer Eli Arenson that only further unnerves viewers. At the same time, Shyamalan displays a similar talent for blocking and framing, which leads to plenty of unforgettable shots begging to be screenshot and reposted on Film Twitter for years to come.

This preternatural grasp of filmmaking 101 extends to her direction of her cast. The script (credited to Ishana Night) makes full use of Dakota Fanning's innate ability to keep moviegoers guessing, relying on copious amounts of closeups that invite us to scrutinize every minute facial expression. Far from a one-note performance, however, the lead actor remains Shyamalan's not-so-secret weapon. When the plot steadily gives way to a mythological folktale steeped in dense amounts of lore, it's Fanning who consistently keeps audiences grounded in the emotional stakes. Helping her out is a small circle of character actors: Olwen Fouéré as wizened survivor Madeline, Oliver Finnegan as the wildcard Daniel, and Georgina Campbell as the brittle Ciara.

Each one ably fills their intended respective narrative functions, adding various complications and further fleshing out a world that can oftentimes feel frustratingly opaque — not unlike the mirror separating the protagonists from the malevolent watchers surrounding them. We eventually learn the "rules" keeping an uneasy peace between both parties which, naturally, Mina breaks time and again in her attempts to escape. But as conflict escalates to a fever pitch, so does the film's struggles to keep its eye on the prize.

The Watchers misses the forest for the trees

What ultimately hurts "The Watchers" the most is two-pronged. First, there's its unwillingness to define its supporting players beyond their broadest archetypes, which means saddling Fanning with much of the heavy lifting. Numerous clunky elements that have bedeviled many a first-timer over the years — an uninspired voiceover narration sticks out like a sore thumb and can't help but feel like a studio note, while frequent flashbacks to Mina's defining conflict are much too obvious and pat for a script that otherwise transcends such easy tropes — threaten to cut the film at its knees. Meanwhile, the story is simultaneously caught between explaining too much of its own lore and worldbuilding. These crucial details probably would've been best served implied and hinted at rather than overtly laid out, oftentimes in ways that call to mind some of the more inelegant info-dumps from the latter seasons of "Lost." Although inordinately faithful to its source material by all accounts, "The Watchers" perhaps might've benefited more from a sense of ambiguity and evoking a certain mood — similar to M. Night Shyamalan's loose adaptation of "Knock at the Cabin" last year.

But the film's greater flaw has to do with its underlying thematics. The screenplay gestures toward all sorts of substantial ideas, from the traumatic memories of Mina's mother baked into her motivations to high-concept ruminations on our all-too-real attempts to "cheat" death. But the most idiosyncratic of them revolves around the repeated emphasis of a fictionalized reality series that clearly lampoons shows like "Love Island." By their very existence, the ever-present watchers turn our main characters into active participants of every theatre kid's worst nightmare: performatively living out their lives under constant observation and to sinister ends. A deeper unpacking would necessitate discussing spoilers, so all we'll say for now is that the final act ends up muddling any coherent message in favor of a far-too-literal interpretation of events.

Yet despite its missteps, "The Watchers" has all the makings of a film we end up looking back on fondly as a confident first step towards much more polished to come. Those looking for the next "The Sixth Sense" will inevitably come away disappointed (though, contrary to popular belief, that wasn't M. Night's actual debut film either). But as a bold announcement that the next evolution of the Shyamalan name is upon us, Ishana leaves plenty of reason to believe that the best is still ahead of us.

/News Rating: 5 out of 10

"The Watchers" opens in theaters on June 7, 2024.