David Koepp is one of the most successful screenwriters currently working. His credits include two decades’ worth of franchise-defining blockbusters, like the first installments of the Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man series. It seems likely that at some point, if Koepp had wanted to take a crack at directing a blockbuster himself, like screenwriters Simon Kinberg (Dark Phoenix) or Christopher McQuarrie (the last two Mission: Impossible entries), he could have made that happen.
But Koepp’s directorial career has been a fascinating parallel to his day job writing stories for Indiana Jones or Jack Ryan. Every three to five years, he directs a small-scale feature, usually with genre elements, often disarming in its modest successes. Even his one possible franchise play, the much-maligned Johnny Depp vehicle Mortdecai, was a decidedly odd, anachronistic project, rather than the series kickoff the studio apparently envisioned. As a writer, Koepp performs franchise maintenance, but as a director, he seems to appreciate the straightforward, well-crafted B-movies that studios aren’t making nearly as often these days.
Koepp’s new film, You Should Have Left, debuting on VOD on June 19, isn’t one of his best, but it’s squarely within his wheelhouse. It recalls Secret Window, another of his less successful efforts, in that the story involves psychological mysteries exacerbated by isolation, and it’s based on someone else’s fiction. Secret Window was from a Stephen King novella; Left is apparently based on a whole novel, though the 92-minute film feels like it could have been adapted from a 25-page short story. It draws out tension by obviously withholding details from the audience, even though the movie’s characters already know them.
At first, it’s only clear that Theo (Kevin Bacon) has some kind of troubled, publicly known past that leads other people to look askance at his marriage to much-younger actress Susanna (Amanda Seyfried). Koepp does a nice job of meting out vaguely ominous background information: Theo has a checkered reputation. He tries to meditate and journal as a form of therapy. He comes from wealth, but seems resentful over his wife’s current career success. Bacon, who can be insidious or charming, warm or nefarious, does fine work signaling Theo’s short fuse without ever really raising his voice.
Seyfried is good, too. Playing “the wife” in a thriller centered on a male character is often a thankless task, and Seyfried steers away from the role’s tedium by emphasizing Susanna’s straightforward, self-possessed qualities. She clearly loves Theo while refusing to put up with his bullshit, and she’s ready to pack a suitcase if the couple, say, finds themselves holed up in an eerie, remote house with their 6-year-old daughter Ella (Avery Essex). That’s exactly what happens: The family finds a rental property online (though later, no one can pinpoint exactly who sent the link to who), and they decamp to Wales for some relaxation before Susanna’s next movie shoot.
The house is almost a parody of one of those movie-friendly modern-architecture marvels that somehow looks enormously expensive and discomfiting to actually inhabit. After the couple’s initial oohs and ahhs over its design, they discover weirdly narrow halls, oddly angled walls, and a general inability to get their bearing in their temporary new home. That’s especially true for Theo, who is plagued by nightmares and starts losing time when he wanders through the maze of blue-gray modernism. He and Susanna don’t insist on staying in the house beyond the point of reason. The house, however, may have other ideas about their expedient plan to get the hell out.
Through a certain point — sometime after Susanna explains Theo’s past to both Ella and the audience — You Should Have Left feels like a companion piece to Koepp’s previous collaboration with Bacon, A Stir of Echoes. (That was a perfectly decent ghost story that had the misfortune to follow The Sixth Sense into theaters back in 1999.) For 45 or 50 minutes, the new movie lays the groundwork for a horror-tinged mystery with patches of dry comic relief, like the slow-moving Welsh shopkeeper who tries Theo’s limited patience, perhaps knowingly. The movie isn’t exactly scary, but it uses haunted-house tropes without trudging toward an inevitable confrontation with a scraggly-looking ghost.
But the film’s appealing modesty eventually fades like a morning mist, leaving behind a skeletal thinness. As the walls close in on the characters, the characters themselves seem to shrink. They become products of their backstory, and in spite of the capable performances, little more than that. Bacon and Seyfried’s slightly prickly dynamic, along with Bacon and Essex’s uneasy father-daughter relationship, are hamstrung by Koepp’s insistence on hanging the whole movie on a parable for guilt and privilege. Just as the movie’s creepiness often derives from depicting nightmares within nightmares, the movie’s thematic concerns amount to a (justifiably) self-flagellating apology for evasive apologias.
At the same time, You Should Have Left never really engages with its characters’ wealth beyond the vague implication that it’s left them both insulated and still cosmically unprotected from Theo’s faults. Bacon’s character in the original novel is a screenwriter; Koepp rewrites him into a banker for the movie. He probably wanted to erase the seeming parallels to the writer’s-block horror of Secret Window, and avoid the inherent solipsism of a screenwriter writing a movie about a screenwriter.
Even with the change, though, the movie starts to feel like the idle doodling of a writer who’d be better off staying on task. Koepp’s best directorial efforts, like Echoes and the bike-riding thriller Premium Rush, crackle with B-movie energy while maintaining a relatable scrappiness. Bacon, Seyfried, and Essex put in their best efforts, but much of Left feels diagrammed and plotted out, rather than experienced.