David Koepp’s haunted house thriller about anger and marital jealousy is ultimately more tragic than spooky.
Society overall seems to be less accepting of significant age differences in relationships than it used to be, particularly when the man is older and the woman is younger. We’re no longer interested in some faux-evolutionary biology nonsense about how men are genetically predisposed to be attracted to younger women, even those young enough to be their daughters. We understand that, in many of these relationships, there’s a power dynamic taking place, and such a dynamic often leads to a toxic, controlling environment. While an older man-younger woman relationship isn’t the primary plot of David Koepp’s You Should Have Left, it provides the fuel for a decent, surprisingly sad haunted house movie.
Based on Daniel Kehlmann’s novella of the same name, You Should Have Left is Koepp’s second collaboration with Kevin Bacon, after 1999’s Stir of Echoes. Stir of Echoes had the misfortune of being released only a month after the similarly themed The Sixth Sense, and that’s a shame, because it’s an effectively chilling little movie, with a career-best performance from the terminally underrated Bacon. Koepp gets another strong performance out of Bacon here, in a movie with similar themes about trauma, guilt, and anger making their presence known in an otherworldly fashion. You’ll see the twist in it coming from a mile away, but the journey to get there is interesting enough to see it through to the end.
Bacon plays Theo Conroy, a disgraced former banker who lives as a sort of pariah after his first wife accidentally drowned in their bathtub. On the outside, he’s not doing too bad–he’s still fabulously wealthy, and he’s married to the much younger, incredibly beautiful Susanna (Amanda Seyfried), with whom he has a cute little daughter named Ella (Avery Essex). All is not well, on the inside though–troubled by vivid nightmares, Theo also struggles with jealousy, anger, and insecurity in his relationship with Susanna, and tries to deal with it through journaling and meditation, with mixed success. Susanna doesn’t help matters because she’s constantly on her phone (as someone her age would normally be), and often makes lighthearted-but-maybe-not-really digs about Theo’s age and dwindling virility. Though they’re united in their love for Ella, there’s an undercurrent of passive-aggression in their interactions with each other, a constant walking around on eggshells that would probably be alleviated if they spent some time apart.
Naturally, they decide to rent a house out in the middle of nowhere in the Welsh countryside.
Their rental house is a dazzling architectural creation, but a little chilly and impersonal too. Oh, and like a malevolent TARDIS, it’s much bigger on the inside than the outside, with endless doors that lead to other hallways, which lead to other rooms, which open up into hidden stairwells, which lead to yet more rooms. If this sounds familiar to you, it may be because you’ve read (or tried to read, at least) Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a novel-within-a-novel about a family who buys a house and discovers that there’s a labyrinth within it. You Should Have Left isn’t nearly as inscrutable as House of Leaves, but it shares similar elements in terms of disorienting time shifts, and unreliable narrators.
You’ll see the twist in it coming from a mile away, but the journey to get there is interesting enough to see it through to the end.
Theo and his family are only in the house for barely a day or two before they quickly realize that there’s something inexplicably not right about it, and that’s even without people from the nearby town asking if they’ve “seen Stetler,” while refusing to explain who Stetler is (not that it matters, this is a plot point that is clumsily ignored later). The more tense Theo and Susanna’s relationship gets, the more rooms seem to open up in the house, each one a little more sinister and dangerous looking than the last, so many rooms that it’s all too easy to get lost in the house, and never be able to leave.
Though of course it wasn’t intended to be viewed in such a context, it’s interesting to watch You Should Have Left as much of the country comes near the end of pandemic stay-at-home directives. If you can stay trapped in a house with your romantic partner for three months straight, your relationship can probably withstand anything. If your relationship is on shaky ground, all that forced face time is really going to show the cracks, without any time away from each other to take a breath. In Theo and Susanna’s case, it’s mere hours before they’re sniping at each other, and it only goes downhill from there. If You Should Have Left doesn’t always work as a horror movie (largely because it resorts to some familiar tropes), it’s far more effective as a tense domestic drama, illustrating the death by a thousand papercuts method of destroying a relationship. Theo can try all the journaling and meditation that he wants, but they can’t control what lives inside of him.
Bacon does solid work playing a troubled man trying his hardest to keep his darker impulses at bay, while Seyfried, perhaps intentionally, just looks mostly bored and annoyed. There is some clever suggestion that how Susanna comes off isn’t really her, but rather how Theo perceives her, which negates the disappointment one feels when the script occasionally resorts to tiresome jump scares and mysterious townspeople who seem to know a lot but refuse to say anything. The haunted house element in You Should Have Left is unremarkable, and the twist leaves a few glaringly unanswered questions. The human drama, and the inability to hide from our true selves, is what makes it work.
You Should Have Left is now available on VOD.