Contemporary horror movies seem to face ever-increasing pressure to say something socially important. Ever since Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” demonstrated just how effective — and popular — horror films can be when they utilize social commentary, there’s been a mounting incentive for Hollywood heavyweights to try their hand at the conscious psychological thriller.
In many ways, it’s an exciting new direction for a genre that has long been reduced to shallow, by-the-numbers summer blockbusters. And it hardly needs to be remarked that some truly excellent films have emerged from this trend, receiving widespread acclaim for layering nuanced political critique underneath masterfully crafted horror-comedy aesthetics.
“You Should Have Left,” despite its awkwardly transparent attempts, hardly succeeds in emulating these better films. Written and directed by “Jurassic Park” screenwriter David Koepp, “You Should Have Left” follows Theo (Kevin Bacon), a middle-aged businessman publicly ostracized but officially acquitted for the alleged murder of his first wife. Now struggling with his second marriage to Susanna (Amanda Seyfried), a much younger and emotionally unavailable Hollywood actress, Theo brings his family to a house in the Welsh highlands with the intent of rekindling his relationships. But the trip doesn’t have the intended effect; wracked with insecurity and guilt while seemingly trapped inside the remote mansion, Theo ultimately gives into the worst sides of his masculinity.
If there’s anything for which the film warrants praise, it would be its visual aesthetic. The film’s color palette is an evocative medley of vibrant oranges, cold blues and oppressive neutral tones. Between this palette and cinematographer Angus Hudson’s playful use of space and shadow, nearly every shot of the film is, at the very least, visually interesting. Also compelling is the design of the film’s central house — a labyrinth of concrete halls, geometric furniture and unsettling light fixtures — which takes on an eerie, otherworldly quality in the film’s creepiest sequences.
But despite its engaging visuals and intriguing #MeToo movement-inspired setup, “You Should Have Left” is a disappointingly shallow and self-indulgent facade. The film passionately announces its socially conscious aspirations, clearly striving to join this new vanguard of “woke” horror. But in being so remarkably insecure in exploring the depths of its premise, “You Should Have Left” ends up being more akin to the frivolous, visually-driven tentpole films from which its superior contemporaries have been a breath of fresh air.
Bacon’s inconsistent performance is the film’s most obvious misfire. Theo initially seems to be an interesting and well-fleshed-out protagonist, with subtle choices and idiosyncrasies that hint at his deeper flaws. But at later points, Bacon delivers the most laughably theatrical lines in the entire film, content to abandon all subtlety and simply scream exactly what Theo is thinking and feeling. Perhaps the critical point of failure for this is the film’s screenplay: Theo is a compelling lead when the script allows Bacon to portray him with nuance. But even in the story’s most critical moments, it rarely trusts Bacon enough to do so.
These issues of characterization only exacerbate the film’s often contrived and sometimes downright problematic plot points. On more than one occasion, characters seem to obtain critical information out of pure plot necessity. Elsewhere, some quite intense scenes and interactions come out of nowhere narratively, while others are surreally anticlimactic. The most consistent offender on these grounds is the gradual falling-out between Theo and Susanna, an arc that is supposed to carry much of the dramatic energy of the film, but feels too emotionally disjointed to be effective.
It’s clear what “You Should Have Left” aspires to be. But it’s also clear that it doesn’t really understand what makes allegorical horror effective. For a film that is so much about the parts of themselves that characters keep hidden, its attempt at character-driven horror is bombastically hollow. And though it certainly makes a social statement, its methods are painfully contrived and melodramatic, ultimately finding more success in purely superficial visual experimentation than with any of its attempted narrative depth. With greater confidence and an understanding of what makes the horror genre compelling, there’s no doubt that the film could have been effective social commentary. But as presented, “You Should Have Left” leaves much to be desired.