The most impressive thing about writer-director David Koepp’s “You Should Have Left” (which is based on the novel by Daniel Kehlmann) is that it is not content with simply offering up an exploration of whether Kevin Bacon’s Theo Conroy’s dark personality will lead him to visit some sort of horror upon his wife, Susanna (Amanda Seyfried), and their daughter, Ella (Avery Essex). It is not even content with taking this idea and grafting a haunted house mystery onto it. No, instead, it takes all that and bundles it together inside an episode of “Doctor Who.” Allons-y!
Even before traveling to Wales with Ella and Susanna, an actress who is about to start shooting in London for eight weeks, Theo is a haunted man. He has nightmares and his meditation tapes don’t seem to ease his mind. We don’t know exactly what haunts him for the first portion of the film, just that he has a huge fear of being recognized and believes that when people do recognize him, he believes they view him with anger and suspicion.
Bacon plays this slow boil beautifully and Koepp hands out just enough morsels to keep the audience invested in the relationship between Theo and Susanna. Theo finds himself closed off from her movie set when he goes to visit, he can only hear her filming a sex scene – did she purposefully let him come to the edge of the set but not onto the set itself on this specific day; does he have reasons to be jealous? We wonder as the couple decide to rent a house as a family getaway.
It is a lovely house, to be sure, but upon entering, when Theo states that it seems “bigger on the inside,” we’re sure we’re in for it. That phrase is well known in certain sci-fi corners as the one humans use upon entering The Doctor’s TARDIS on “Doctor Who.” They are learning that what seems to be a simple police call box from the outside is in fact a massive ship and while that is not necessarily (no spoilers here) what the audience is about to find out in “You Should Have Left,” it certainly causes one to sit up and take notice. What exactly are the rules here? Just what is it that the next 75 minutes of movie are going to bring?
The answer to that last question is: a wonderfully atmospheric look at one man’s inexorable journey into some terrible places.
“You Should Have Left” splits its time between exploring the relationships in Theo’s life and the layout of the house, and neither is straightforward. Theo’s past is always right there, just around the corner, and even when we’re sure that we know the details that are just beyond our vision, just like with the house, when we get to that next hallway, we don’t necessarily see what we expected.
There is always a question with movies, particularly one with mysterious goings-on and hidden pasts, of just how much the film should lay out about what is taking place, and why, and how things got to this point. Offering no explanation is bad, but offering a full one that makes little sense or is disappointing in some manner may be worse.
Koepp’s film attempts to thread the needle in this area and mostly succeeds. We come to learn the details of Theo’s history—and watching him do his best to explain his past to his young daughter whom he desperately loves is absolutely heartbreaking—but only get general ideas of the house’s story. It is enough to keep us invested in the tale, but never quite shakes the sense that maybe, just maybe, the movie is throwing things in without always having a sense of how they fit together.
In the end, there is so much that we don’t know about the house, that we never learn. And so, we find ourselves back where we were earlier – believing we understand the general contours but in the dark when it comes to details.
Bacon, as noted, anchors the movie in achingly beautiful fashion. He gives us a person who is regularly consumed by rage but desperately wants to not be. He is a man looking for an escape from his past but, like leaving the house, he can never quite make his way out.
Seyfried and Essex are both good as well. Seyfried, like Bacon, portrays someone with a past, some who maybe wants things to be different than they are, someone who is trying to escape from mistakes she’s made.
Watching the interplay between Susanna and Theo gives an emotional, realistic, look at a marriage where both sides just can’t quite see how to fully connect. And the parent-child relationships explored between Susanna and Ella as well as Theo and Ella are just as real. Whatever else may happen in the movie, those moments are never over the top, instead providing real weight to the story, grounding it and making it far better than it could have been.
By the time the credits roll and as much of the mystery is revealed as ever will be, the audience finds themselves contemplating the shape of things: what is the story we have seen, what is the one that comes before it, and what is the one that comes after. I can’t imagine that we’ll ever get those answers and even if not everything in “You Should Have Left” is completely satisfying, there’s more than enough to chew on. Even The Doctor might enjoy digging in to this particular tale.
photo credit: Universal Pictures