by Kenny Hedges
Films released or written at this time will always be interesting for how, by necessity, coincidence or with intent, they depict the pandemic without ever speaking it. Already, horror films released around the beginning of the year, particularly those even tangentially related to disease, virus or infection, have been singled out for having an eerie resonance (specifically Sea Fever).
But we’ve also seen films that otherwise would undergo little public scrutiny suddenly become intensely personal. So why does David Koepp’s You Should Have Left feel…inauthentic?
Well, part of it is no fault of the film, as it was clearly shot before Hollywood largely shut down, meaning it misses the boat on being timely. But surely a family-centric film, when so many of us are stuck with one another, would ring some bells.
The family is headed by Kevin Bacon, a widow who recently remarried a young Hollywood starlet (Amanda Seyfried) who appears to be getting too comfortable with her onscreen talent. Lacking trust and confidence in his much younger bride, he takes her and his young daughter (Avery Tilu Essex) to a quiet airbnb in the Welsh countryside.
Long before arriving at the mysterious home they rented off the internet, their relationship is strained, both by her celebrity and his. Seems Bacon’s previous wife died under suspicious circumstances. When he starts suspecting his new wife his having an affair and his journal starts leaving him messages he doesn’t remember writing, including the film’s title, their family strife takes on a supernatural layer.
Koepp may be better known for his screenwriting efforts (Jurassic Park, Spiderman), but his handful of directorial efforts are mainly horror-centric. All of his films, however, seem to suffer from the same third act problems – the material has solid foundations, coming from the minds of Stephen King and Richard Matheson, but ultimately don’t end strong. They’re marred by the same kind of crowd-pleasing Koepp had all but perfected with his blockbusters of the 90s.
You Should Have Left is no exception, the script coming from a novel by Daniel Kehlmann, but it’s the first time the material by and large could not be sugarcoated. Not that Koepp doesn’t try, and therein lies the film’s fatal flaw.
While Bacon may be in fine form, there’s a crucial disconnect with the audience. Part of that is clearly translated from the novel, which seems a more appropriate setting for a work with such an unreliable narrator. The film, for the most part, wants Bacon’s guilt to be in question even after it’s supposedly made clear, which turns his character into a bit of a cipher. As the house becomes literally confounding structurally, it starts to become uncertain if Bacon is even telling the truth or if what he’s seeing is real.
But the real fear doesn’t come so much from his own uncertainty, as it would normally, but from the jeopardy he continuously puts his daughter in. While he never acts violently toward her or his wife, and there’s no suggestion he’ll snap at any point, his insistence that she stay with him seems, at best, like an ill-informed Covid-patient.
Which would be an afterthought if the film didn’t want to imply that, innocent or guilty of his first wife’s death, his attempts to explain death, murder and his innocence to his daughter will only serve to screw her up worse.
Ultimately, however, Koepp behaves as expected: opting out of the harder questions while still effectively utilizing the occasional jump scare.