Like a lot of haunted house stories, the wonderfully sinister “You Should Have Left” is less about a creepy house and more about a tortured soul. With its empty rooms, creaky floorboards, and symmetrically framed hallways, this may seem like another mansion with secrets and secret passageways, which it kinda is. But it also has a way of revealing the deepest secrets of those who stay there. Enter at your own risk.
Kevin Bacon plays Theo, a banker with a much younger wife, Susanna, an actress (played by Amanda Seyfried), an adorable daughter, Ella (Avery Tiiu Essex), and a big secret that’s bound to come out. On vacation in Wales, Theo is treating his family to a weekend in the countryside. Its empty pastures are therapeutic, at least for a while. And the family seems to be having a good time, but hide and seek games with Ella lead to strange places. Bad dreams to stranger ones. Before you can yell “don’t go in there!”, Theo is opening all the wrong doors.
The plot of “You Should Have Left” is jumbled, in a good way. It involves Theo dealing with a wife he suspects is having an affair, an ex-wife who drowned, a daughter learning about daddy’s past, and a cold modernist home: all the trappings of an existential midlife crisis for a character of privilege like this. It also involves Theo’s own shakiness, which makes him an unreliable protagonist.
David Koepp’s direction thrives once Theo’s insanity takes over the plot. When his world closes in on him, so does the house. Moments after Susanna tells Ella something she definitely should not have heard, weird stuff ensues. Koepp and production designer Sophie Becker build a few ominous scares that visually illustrate Theo’s crumbling sanity. Light bulbs flicker. Shadows dart across the walls. New doorways pop up at random. Like Overlook Hotel from “The Shining”–another maze of demons and doorways — enter the wrong room and you’ll find a rotting, naked corpse in the bathtub.
You know how real estate agents like to up the price of a home by calling it “updated?” This house updates itself every few seconds. And it even customizes itself to mirror your every emotion. Feeling claustrophobic? The walls close in on you. Feeling regret about letting your ex-wife drown? Well, you’ll just have to watch Theo’s spasms of panic, which lay the groundwork for what’s to come.
The camera stays close to Bacon during these scenes and he brings subdued energy to the role. He somehow conveys both the authority of being a father and a helplessness that simmers just below the surface, elevating material that can be more than a little silly, especially when his character wanders into Huh, I wonder what that sound is. I should investigate territory. Seyfried can’t escape her limited material. Essex gets even less to do.
Ultimately, Koepp (whose script is based on Daniel Kehlmann’s novel of the same name) seems more interested in Theo than his other characters. Theo rightfully suspects Susanna is having an affair, which gives the filmmakers an excuse to kick her out of the house. Lonely, broken, and unstable, Theo is forced to confront his demons alone.
“You Should Have Left” wants to grapple with the insecurities of aging and feeling irrelevant, and that’s really interesting, fascinating even, texture for a horror movie. Unfortunately, Koepp’s movie is far too muddled to be revealing in any meaningful way with his ideas. It hardly offers a moment to get sucked into Theo’s struggle. That could be deliberate. Maybe audiences aren’t supposed to connect with a man who could have drowned his wife? Maybe the messy pacing and jarring editing are reflexively commentating on Theo’s discorded psyche? Or maybe it’s just a mess. Either way, the house of Bacon isn’t very pretty, but Koepp is a decent enough real estate agent to keep you interested in the pitch, at least for a little while. [C+]