New International Releases: Watch List (2020)-Reviewed

(Image Courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment)

When Rodrigo Duterte was running for President of The Philippines and ultimately won, his number one platform was Drug Reform. He made it very clear not only would he jail what he called “pushers” and users but he would have them killed in the streets to set an example. Horrifyingly, after his sweeping victory, Duterte almost immediately set to work creating violent task forces within the police and began a viscous war on drugs. A list (the titular Watch List) was created and anyone on it was immediately under threat of being killed. 

Taking place in Manila, right in the thick of Duterte’s reign of terror, Ben Rekhi’s Watch List explores the devastating ramifications of the war on drugs through one family and their descent into the depths of the criminal underworld. 

Maria (Alessandra de Rossi) and her husband Turo are victims of the Watch List when the police come knocking at their door one day. Known as former pushers and users, the couple are given the choice to surrender to a rehabilitation program despite being clean for years. Knowing they have no choice but to submit and for the safety of their children, the pair surrender. A few nights later, while riding his bike through city, Turo is gunned down by vigilantes and left with a sign warning other “pushers” that this is their fate should they choose to continue. Enraged, bereft and with nowhere left to turn, Maria is pulled into the violent world of cops and vigilantes. To protect her children and to find her husband’s murderer, she has no choice but to become the very thing she’s afraid of. 

(Image Courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment)

The bones of Watch List are as familiar as it gets if you’ve seen any crime thriller. Rekhi and co-writer Rona Lean Sales aren’t interested in doing anything new with the format in terms of story beats. Where the film veers into new territory is its setting. By filming in the Philippines, in the heart of an area in the grips of a fascist President and Police, Rekhi’s film lands with a repeated punch to the face that this is all too real. It helps that the DP work from Daniella Nowitz  is some of the most stunning photography you’ll see this year. Mixing vibrant neons with stark naturalism, her camera oscillates you from compelling revenge noir to heartbreaking family drama, sometimes both at once. It’s really a gorgeous film that frequently stands out even when the story doesn’t. 

The aforementioned punch to the face is largely due to this somehow being shot in Manila. It almost feels like a miracle that this film even exists. It’s not just a commentary on this problem. It’s a violent repudiation to it. It shows you how families are unnecessarily torn apart in the name of “keeping the streets safe” and how the cycles of violence will continue because there’s nothing in place to help anybody. To make a movie like this in the country where it’s happening is almost staggering. The lines of fiction and reality continuously blur, again owed very much to Nowitz’s camera work, and more often than not this feels like an on-the-ground account. 

(Image Courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment)

Alessandra de Rossi is the other ingredient that helps this transcend its genre trappings. Her transformation from scared mother to grieving widow to a woman more than capable of handling herself in an underbelly where the cops and criminals are frequently impossible to tell apart, is astonishing. The aforementioned odd mix of revenge thriller and familial drama works as well as it does because of how committed de Rossi is to both. She sells the heartbreak of abandoning her family as she descends deeper into darkness, all in the name of protecting them. She’s the embodiment of the crisis at large: committing violence against one group to “prevent” further violence on another. She’s a devastating character with an equally devastating performance to match. Without her, the whole thing sinks. 

I have a few misgivings about an American filmmaker taking the reigns on a story like this. His co-writer is Filipino which helps ease a bit of the unease but there’s still an air of “is this really your story to tell?” floating around the film. Yes, the argument can be made that a humanitarian crisis should be acknowledged by all, regardless of nationality but you can’t help but wonder, as good as Watch List is could it have been even better coming from a filmmaker with a deeper knowledge on the subject and the country it’s happening in?

That concern aside, Watch List is a wildly compelling thriller with an equally wrenching drama at its core. The issues it tackles are not only real but they’re happening right now. Never letting itself fall into tragedy porn, instead opting to stay laser focused on Maria and her journey, the film rises above its genre trappings to be a harrowingly thrilling watch. It has its stumbles and there’s never a real sense mystery, especially  if you’ve seen enough movies like this but it sticks its landing remarkably well. An excellent lead performance and craft that’s impossible to ignore make this one well worth your time.

-Brandon Streussnig