You Can Definitely Tell M. Night Shyamalan’s Daughter Made ‘The Watchers’

Whether the pileup of all-in-the-family auteurist tropes is derivative or daring is very much in the eye of the beholder

Warner Bros./Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It would be easy enough to inventory all the ways Ishana Night Shyamalan’s debut feature evokes the films of her father; in fact, it’s harder to identify anything in The Watchers that doesn’t seem at least partially borrowed from M. Night’s formidable oeuvre. Adapted by Ishana from a novel by the Irish writer A.M. Shine, The Watchers is a thriller set in a secluded and gorgeously overgrown forest (The Village) that’s potentially populated by mythic creatures (Lady in the Water); its protagonist bears the literal and figurative scars of childhood trauma (Split) and occasionally sees dead people (The Sixth Sense); it features recurring cutaways to menacing, swaying foliage (The Happening) and a subplot about scientific experimentation gone awry (Old). Certain characters are not quite who they seem at a glance (The Visit), and there’s even a cabin, suitable for knocking.

Whether this pileup of all-in-the-family auteurist tropes is derivative or daring is very much in the eye of the beholder; either way, with Dad moonlighting as a producer, it was inevitable that matters of lineage would make The Watchers a conversation piece, especially during a summer in which Ishana’s older sister, Saleka, is set to costar in M. Night’s new thriller, Trap. Nepo-baby discourse is in, and in a recent story in The New York Times, Ishana met the topic head-on, acknowledging her heritage and what she sees as her responsibilities as a filmmaker whose surname opens doors at the upper levels of Hollywood. “It’s really about meeting that privilege and honoring that with as hard a work ethic as we can,” said the 24-year-old filmmaker, who apprenticed as a second unit director on Old and Knock at the Cabin. “[We’re] holding ourselves to the highest standard possible.”

As a piece of direction, The Watchers is about on par with Ishana’s work on the underrated Apple TV+ original series Servant (which her father was the showrunner for); she likes shooting at odd angles and mixing in lots of predatory, overhead perspectives, and she knows how to pressurize a set piece. Atmosphere is everything in a movie like this, and working in tandem with the gifted music video cinematographer Eli Arenson—who also shot the gorgeous 2021 Scandinavian folk horror movie Lamb—the director succeeds in creating an environment that’s palpably haunted around the edges, once the exposition is out of the way, at least. Dakota Fanning stars as Mina, an aspiring artist and pet store employee in scenic Galway who punctuates her workaday boredom by donning a brown bob wig and picking up local lads while cosplaying as a glamorous ballerina—a bit of character detail that at first seems like a non sequitur but actually hints slyly at the themes of identity that figure into the main story line.

Mina, it seems, is uncomfortable in her own skin, owing to long-simmering guilt over some distant transgression; a terse phone call with her sister, Lucy, confirms a measure of familial dysfunction. At this point, long-buried trauma is as much of a horror cliché as cursed artifacts or filleted teenagers; where a movie like The Empty Man satirizes such conventions, The Watchers uses them as a crutch—a telltale sign of a fledgling screenwriter. Hoping to distract herself and in need of extra cash, Mina accepts an errand chauffeuring an exotic (and expensive) parrot across the countryside to Belfast (which is surely the first time that this precise narrative setup has been used). After driving pretty much into the middle of nowhere, her car breaks down, leaving our heroine to wander through the rapidly darkening woods with the caged bird in tow.

The scenes of Mina cowering in the forest are evocative enough that the movie could actually use more of them; one of the script’s flaws is that it rushes headlong into its first big reveal when slow-playing would have been preferable. Mina, as it turns out, isn’t alone; she’s approached by an older woman, Madeline (Olwen Fouéré)—wild-eyed and wiry, with a mane of long, silver hair—who offers cryptic but dire warnings of the come-with-me-if-you-want-to-live variety and spirits her back to a strange, oblong structure with a massive glass partition in the front. Inside, Mina meets two more people—20-something Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and teenaged Daniel (Oliver Finnegan)—who attempt to quickly acclimatize the newcomer to what has become, for them, a nightly ritual. Their task: to spend the night on display through the aforementioned window—actually a two-way mirror—for an audience of unseen (but easily heard) creatures who apparently take thrill in their mundane exploits.

The sheer convolution of this premise has a make-or-break quality to it; suffice it to say that The Watchers unfolds very much like a movie written by somebody who used to get tucked in while listening to a vestigial version of Lady in the Water. The eternal contradiction in the case of Shyamalan the elder is the tension between his enduring eloquence as a visual storyteller and the stiltedness of his dramaturgy, and on this front, his daughter proves to be a chip off the old block—for better and for worse. As a piece of set design, the “coop” (as Madeline calls it) is striking and memorable, like a kind of surrealist terrarium; it’s fun to look at but ridiculous to contemplate. That ridiculousness goes double for the elaborate “rules” that Madeline runs through for Mina’s (and our) benefit. The arcana here is grueling stuff; like the saga of Narfs and Scrunts in Lady in the Water, it suggests less some kind of solemn, ancient doctrine than a fairy tale that’s being made up as it goes along.

Such messiness is not necessarily a problem in and of itself, and it helps that for every outlandish narrative detail, there’s a resonant image, often involving the coop’s window, which is mirrored on the inside so that the characters become their own private audience even as they’re performing for their captors. The film’s gravitas, meanwhile, resides largely with Fanning; her hilarious extended cameo in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood notwithstanding, it’s been a while since the actor has had a high-profile lead, and she makes the most of the opportunity. The emotional transparency Fanning cultivated as a child star has been replaced by an ardent, nervy quality that’s perfect for a character who’s looking for a way out (that same quality was on display in Night Moves); she’s particularly well-matched with Fouéré, an acclaimed veteran stage actor, who’s got just the right angular physicality and otherworldly look for a story steeped in all kinds of Celtic lore (standing stock-still among the gnarled tree branches, she looks like a medieval woodcut). As for Campbell and Finnegan, they’re both suitably intense but hamstrung by clichéd screenwriting; even within the stripped-down conception of the story, they feel extraneous, bordering on expendable.

Any further discussion of what happens in the film—and to whom—would undermine its main selling point, which is the enigma of the title characters and their ultimate motivations. Without treading too far into spoiler territory, it’s worth noting (and admiring) that Shyamalan is coloring inside the lines of genre here; any fears that the film will dispense with supernatural high jinks and reveal itself as a high-handed metaphor for our voyeuristic, spectacle-obsessed society dissipate pretty quickly (notwithstanding a couple of dated jabs at reality TV). Which is not to say that The Watchers is without gimmicks (or self-reflexive pretensions), or even that its mash-up of Twilight Zone paranoia and creature-feature scares ends up feeling coherent—just that it basically plays fair by setting up a surreal scenario and seeing it through, as opposed to the sleight of hand in, say, The Village, with its phony, jerry-rigged creatures and Rod Serling–ish message that the real monster is (drumroll, please) the American way of life.

That movie was a proverbial film of ideas, and it was also in some ways M. Night’s Waterloo—the one where his reputation for storytelling trickery caught up with him. The Watchers is not nearly as cerebral; it’s less a political (or showbiz) allegory than a fable about our shared capacity for change. It’s a theme that’s ultimately addressed so plangently that it has the opposite effect and borders on goofiness. That’s where the family resemblance comes in once more. M. Night’s most distinguishing characteristic has always been his earnestness, which he uses as a shield against irony on-screen and off; with The Watchers, Ishana wields the same secret weapon with an endearing mix of awkwardness and pride.

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