Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT
Rated R, 93 minutes
Director: David Koepp
YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT has all the fixin’s of a good thriller: A spooky modernist house that will service the characters’ physical and psychological stakes. A skilled lead actor who’s well-versed in crafting chilling drama. A mind-bending, lean novella that lends itself to taut big screen tension. And an extremely talented writer/ director who finds immeasurable, time-honored success in the nuance of novel entertainment. However, what comes from David Koepp’s adaptation of Daniel Kehlmann’s story about a middle-aged man and his family’s weekend stay in a remote rental doesn’t inspire many scares, nor cares. The house might find its unwitting victims, but that doesn’t mean the terror will find its viewers.
Retired banker Theo Conroy (Kevin Bacon) is miserable. So much so, he’s taken to journaling and guided meditation. Though he’s attained the American Dream (the house, the car and the wealth), domestic unrest is plaguing him, creating chaos in his home life. His marriage to a much younger wife, actress Susanna (Amanda Seyfried) is hitting the skids thanks to his incredibly jealous, untrusting nature and a past traumatic experience that’s colored their union. Their inquisitive six-year-old daughter Ella (Avery Tiiu Essex) senses something strange is amiss as she wonders what’s haunting her dad. In order to ease their spirits, they decide on a weekend getaway at a secluded home in the Welsh countryside. Their need for the perfect vacation, however, quickly turns into a nightmare when the house starts feeding on their guilt, sorrow and destructive discontent.
A striking age difference between a husband and wife has been utilized before in film, both to signal a cavernous divide in views and provide a superficial, predictable reason for the couple’s inevitable fracturing. He’s mistaken for her father by a production assistant, and internalizes the shame of his inability to service his wife’s voracious sexual appetite. Not only that, he provokes arguments, making her understandably pull away. She’s no saint either, but since this is from his perspective, his flaws are more exposed. The narrative’s allegorical sentiments are obvious, contextualizing how marital relationships’ insidious elements – perceived slights, deceits, infidelities and whatnot – manifest and mature into decay and imprisonment if not confronted.
The home itself represents the protagonist’s tortured psyche, with dark, hidden enclaves, long hallways where shadows are obscured, a Hitchcock-inspired basement staircase, and gray brick and concrete walls. Banks of light switches illustrate Theo’s need to shine light on a growing maleficence. He’s clearly put up metaphorical walls to protect himself and guard his daughter from his own sins – something they clumsily reference in the groan-inducing climax. His suffering is slowly devolving into self-abnegation, which the narrative seems to treat as some kind of martyrdom. The aesthetic texture of the production design serves the story, but the story Koepp crafts with these visual tools is lifeless.
Perhaps the biggest hurdles this film never surmounts are that Theo is wholly unlikeable from the start and Susanna is barely one-dimensional. The red flags pointing to his bad behaviors are flying at full mast before the couple’s passive aggressive snipes and arguments surface. She unwittingly minimizes his glaring weaknesses and he returns the favor with an unhealthy desire to control her, suspecting she’s unfaithful and untrustworthy. We never grow to root for them to survive as a couple, let alone when they split apart. The picture’s overall atmospheric sense of dread also comes up lacking. We don’t fear nightfall like these characters do. Plus, there are mind-numbingly stupid elements, from the purposely tight-lipped townsfolk, to the logistics of the home’s time and space vortex – which primarily serves as commentary that too much time is spent covering up secrets and lies instead of being authentic.
Maybe had the filmmaker kept the story points similar to the novella, where the narrator is a screenwriter stressed over creating a follow-up feature, this adaptation would have more bite. We’ll never know. Relying on well-traversed territory to tell a tale is one thing. But using it as a crutch, which is what Koepp’s adaptation does, is clearly another. Though the title serves as an apt warning to viewers, it really it ought to read “You Shouldn’t Go In The First Place.”
YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT is available on demand everywhere on June 18.