There’s a metatextual quality to The Watched’s story of mythological mimicry

Feeling like you’re being watched is unsettling at best, but being watched by unseen creatures every night takes paranoia to a whole new level, as does, one suspects, being watched by your veteran director father while making your own debut feature. Hashtag NepoNoia. The Watched, known outside the UK as The Watchers, dives headfirst into the dark heart of Irish folklore, where mystery and malevolence lurk at the heart of an improbably impenetrable forest in western Ireland.

Mina (Dakota Fanning), a disaffected young woman seeking an escape from past trauma makes ends meet – in between in-disguise anonymous hook-ups – by working in a Galway pet shop. When she’s tasked with transporting a rare parrot to Dublin Zoo, she inadvertently finds herself stranded in a dense and mysterious forest. Unable to find her way out or even back to her car, she stumbles upon three strangers, Ciara (Georgina Campbell), Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) and Madeleine (Olwen Fouéré), who begrudgingly take her in and school her in the rules of survival in this most unusual of forests.

Writer/ Director Ishana Night Shyamalan, adapting A M Shine’s novel, sets out to prove her movie making credentials with a film that brims with an eldritch atmosphere so thick it feels as if the very air in the forest is alive with menace. Cinematographer Eli Arenson masterfully captures the claustrophobic and haunting essence of the forest, wrapping the audience in a visual embrace that is as enchanting as it is unnerving. Dakota Fanning’s portrayal of Mina is as potent as you’d expect from an actress of her calibre, even though the writing and characterisation compels her to a more emotionally disengaged performance than we’re used to from her. The other residents of the incongruous blockade in the deep dark woods are perhaps less nuanced and well-drawn, although the ever-reliable Olwen Fouéré leverages the layering on of Irish folklore so thick you’ll expect the screen to start spouting shamrocks to enhance her screen presence.

It’s fairly clear that the filmmaking apple doesn’t fall far from the twisted tale tree, as Shyamalan Jr pays obvious homage to her father’s The Village in both atmosphere and signature colour choices. There’s a slight sluggishness to the pacing, too where it occasionally feels like trudging through a bog, every narrative step laborious and slow and the script frequently falters thanks to stilted dialogue and an ill-balanced plot which leaves parts of the story underdeveloped or, worse, hurriedly dumped in clumsy expository scenes. Of course, there’s a twist and if there’s anything that underlines the hereditary filmmaking at play here it’s that Ishana Night Shyamalan can’t quite stick the landing either. Like father, like daughter, they just can’t reliably pay off their set-up.

For much of its runtime, The Watched is a decent folk horror, although it falls short of the primal unease of Into The Earth and lacks the intensity of films like The Witch or Midsommar, failing to make the most of the rich mythology it’s mining or find a satisfying place for the story to go once it hits its premature crescendo. Still, for a debut feature, it shows promising instincts and perhaps we have to allow that M Night Shyamalan’s presence as producer prevented I Night Shyamalan from seeing the wood for the trees and realising the metatextual irony of a movie about changelings coming to resemble her father’s work so strongly. Hopefully she’ll find her way out of her father’s no doubt well-intentioned shadows and navigate her own path through the overgrown brambles of Holly Wood.

the watched review
Score 5/10
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