By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Kevin Bacon, Amanda Seyfried and Avery Essex
Written and directed by David Koepp
To get one issue out of the way first: The significant age difference between Kevin Bacon and his onscreen love interest Amanda Seyfried in YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT is not simply another example of the cringey trope seen so often in Hollywood movies. It’s an intentional device, one of the keys to the story, and an example of how writer/director David Koepp has taken on familiar genre themes and personalized them in compelling ways.
In fact, to call Seyfried’s Susanna the “love interest” of Bacon’s Theo is oversimplifying things, and not quite accurate. From an early scene that succinctly encapsulates the divide between them (Theo, a banker, visits actress Susanna on location but is denied access to the set while she’s filming a sex scene), it’s clear that they’re not a perfect match, only beginning with the age difference. (Though Koepp also includes a couple of shots of Theo shirtless, demonstrating that Bacon, who was 60 during production, is still ripped.) It’s also evident from the first act of YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT that he’s got a past that he still feels guilty about, one that is gradually revealed as Theo, Susanna and their young daughter Ella (Avery Essex) travel to a remote part of Wales, where the couple hope to repair their relationship before Susanna begins a shoot in London.
The house they stay in is not the picturesque manor or the ominous Gothic pile one might expect from this story and the setting. Instead, it’s a very modern dwelling, all clean surfaces and right angles, and a properly sterile environment for Koepp to dissect the Conroys’ marriage as it continues to disintegrate. Theo tries to deal with his inner turmoil via meditation recordings and scrawling out his angrier feelings in a journal, but suspicions about Susanna continue to fester. Bacon, who worked so well with Koepp as the blue-collar ghost hunter in STIR OF ECHOES 21 years ago, brings equal engagement to the part of Theo, who is significantly wealthier and walking proof that money can’t buy happiness. Seyfried brings great sensitivity to Susanna, her performance evoking a marriage full of rifts, and Essex is a real find, a remarkable and disarming little actress free of movie-kid tics who provides a sympathetic anchor amidst the dysfunction between the Conroys.
Their fraying connection is the focus of the first 40 minutes or so of YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT, with only a couple of hints of otherworldly threats to come. Koepp and his cast do a strong job of engaging us in their drama before the Conroys and the audience begin getting the sense that something’s not quite right with the house. At first it’s just small details and simple, eerie lighting and mirror tricks, before the place starts actively turning against Theo, driving him to further distraction. In the latter portions of the film, Koepp plays with space in disorienting ways, and the production design by Sophie Becher becomes a maze of impossible architecture that’s enjoyably chilling to navigate with Theo.
There are inevitable echoes of THE SHINING here, though Koepp has expunged some similarities from the Daniel Kehlmann novella on which the movie is based, and YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT maintains its own identity via the specifics of its people. The writer/director also finds ways to freshen up some of the genre’s tropes; he stages a lengthy nightmare sequence in which the dreamer acknowledges it’s a dream, and builds tension and fear out of that. You might be able to see where some of the setpieces are going, but YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT’s overall deft mix of real-world concerns and supernatural menace assures that you won’t regret sticking with it.
See our interview with David Koepp about YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT here.