You Should Have Left Review
Kevin Bacon almost elevates a by-the-numbers thriller in You Should Have Left. Almost.
Kevin Bacon deserves better. I write this knowing full well that the actor is considered a star, one whose output in the 1980s and ‘90s made him a generational touchstone for Gen-X and older Millennials. He even became a meme before that was a thing. With a slightly different career, the Footloose leading man who always enjoyed a side of ham with his bacon might’ve become a renowned scenery-chewer. Think of the latter day love you see for Nicolas Cage in Mandy or Jeff Goldblum in a Disney+ TV show simply about him “Goldblum-ing” around the world. Yet Bacon never quite achieved that attention. And it’s left him in movies as bland as You Should Have Left.
To be fair, this is a fairly serviceable blandness, erring closer to the thriller side of the horror-thriller movie paradigm. In fact, it has a few sequences that even vaguely unnerve, if only due to Bacon’s ability to sell dread as he and his five-year-old daughter are lost in the pitch black of night. But these scenes, few and far between, merely punctuate what is an incredibly rote and predictable haunted house tale where you’ll spend the whole film waiting for the characters to catch up to what you guessed in the very first scene.
Without spoiling that opener, it proves to be a hell of a nightmare for Theo Conroy (Bacon), a successful if ostracized high-finance banker. It seems some years ago, Theo was accused of murdering his wife—an accusation he vehemently denies and was acquitted of. Nowadays he has found domestic bliss with a movie star (Amanda Seyfried), who is young enough to be his daughter. Seriously, the pair appear to be father and adult child on screen, and in a way that I’m not sure David Koepp’s film is wholly aware of, even as his script frequently concedes the age difference.
In actuality though, Theo and Seyfried’s Susanna have a five-year-old daughter named Ella (Avery Tiiu Essex), whom they both dote on. They also attempt to repair the distances between them due to Susanna’s busy film schedule by getting away to a modern house built on a remote hill in Wales. But while the house is only a few years old, it turns out that it’s built on the site of an older estate, which in turn is built on an even more ancient structure. Just who is building or renting these homes upon homes, and histories upon histories, is unclear. However, there’s something faintly sinister going on every time Theo looks away from his mirror but his reflection keeps on staring back, as full of judgment and scorn as everyone else.
The above synopsis contains no information that wasn’t already revealed by the trailer, but you likely already know the beats of the story, not least of all because you’ve seen them in better movies. From Jack Torrance’s struggle to face his failures as a loving family man in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to the grim mysteries hidden within Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, there is a basic familiarity to all of the machinations that robs the film of any sense of genuine tension or surprise.
This in itself is not necessarily a failure. Narrative tropes become so because we enjoy them, particularly in the parameters of a campfire yarn about things going bump in the night. But writer-director Koepp, a compulsive adapter who is working here from a novel by Daniel Kehlmann, does little to visually or narratively distinguish his archetypes. While the halls and floors of Theo’s living nightmare eventually begin shifting around him, not unlike the contours of a guilty mind, it is all presented in a sleekly competent yet unremarkable framing.
Looking about as good as standard issue Blumhouse Productions fare, there is nothing so surreal about this Welsh estate as there is of the Overlook Hotel, or revealing as Eleanor Lance’s greatest fears. So it is the movie only works as well as it does because of the casting. Beyond the ickiness of the central age difference, each actor carries themselves well, albeit with Bacon getting a lot more to do. In a lesser movie, the performance might be as workmanlike as the plot, but Bacon provides a sincere intelligence to Theo’s crumbling mind and a sense of awareness that suggests he should’ve figured out the implications of his vacation as quickly as we did.
It’s a shame then that it comes to not much more than a serviceable COVID distraction for thriller hounds desperate for anything new. Still, it might be best to heed the title You Should Have Left before renting, because it’s also great advice for whatever streaming service you’re watching it on.