SXSW 2019: I SEE YOU (2019)

I See You.jpg

Studio:      Bankside Films
Director:    Adam Randall
Writer:      Devon Graye
Producer:  Matt Waldeck
Stars:     Helen Hunt, John Tenney, Owen Teague, Libe Barer, Gregory Alan Williams, Erika Alexander, Allison King, Judah Lewis, Sam Trammell

Review Score:

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Summary:

A suburban family troubled by an extramarital affair becomes tangled in a string of child abductions through an unusual home invasion.


Synopsis:     

SXSW Film Festival Review:

The Harpers currently face two problems: one public and one private, although both are very personal. A third problem is soon to hit even closer to home, except the family has a great deal of ground to cover before they discover exactly what it is.

The quiet Ohio community where everyone lives thought imprisonment for the prime suspect meant a rash of child murders was many years behind them. Lead detective Greg Harper certainly thought so. But when another bike-riding boy goes mysteriously missing in the woods, Greg and his longtime partner go back on the hunt for a possible copycat, unless this kidnapper was the real killer all along.

In his personal life, Greg still has to process a recent revelation regarding his wife Jackie’s infidelity. Their son Connor has already made up his mind that enmity is the answer. He turns teen angst into hostile words during any encounter with his mother. Greg’s frustration boils just as hot, yet he may be willing to repair his relationship if he and Jackie can reconnect on common ground. That is if the strange circumstances plaguing their suburban household don’t unravel the Harpers any further.

It’s possible that the summary above doesn’t make “I See You” sound overly enticing. Unfortunately, that’s as much as I can divulge about the cleverly crisscrossing plotlines before breadcrumbs risk turning into a detailed trail of spoilers. Suffice it to say that whatever you think “I See You” might be about, or wherever you think you see it heading while watching, director Adam Randall and writer Devon Graye hide an entire deck of suspenseful surprises up their sleeves to keep your imagination mired in mystery throughout.

You hear this said for various reasons regarding any number of films, but “I See You” epitomizes a filmic dish best served cold. To put it succinctly, if you’re at all interested in “I See You,” you’ll have the best experience by going in as blind as possible to any type of foreknowledge. Its mystique doesn’t hinge on a Shyamalan twist or jaw-dropping reveal per se. Yet the movie weaves multiple viewpoints into a nonlinear narrative for a storytelling style that is only as effective as individual engagement allows.

By unfolding elements out of order, “I See You” adds exponential intrigue to otherwise straightforward fiction. It’s difficult to imagine the story being received as effectively in an alternate format, making “I See You” uniquely rewarding as a carefully crafted dramatic thriller.

The downside to this technique of piecemeal reveals and cinematic subterfuge is that with hindsight, the movie becomes a victim of its own necessary evils. Several misdirects are ultimately immaterial, employed purely as smoke and mirror distractions leading to retroactively useless dead ends instead of creatively connecting back to the main narrative. Playing unfairly may lead some viewers to come away feeling cheated.

Another side effect is that abrupt shifts from one setup to another, which include introducing key characters almost halfway into the movie, really drag on momentum. “I See You” opens on concurrent arcs involving a police procedural and intimate family turmoil. A faulty marriage in the first stage of rebuilding is seldom used as a foundation for character development in genre entertainment. Coupled with terrific casting, this personal drama injects meaningful maturity that aids in preventing “I See You” from feeling trivial.

But when a third thread takes over the focus, “I See You” hits a sudden hunger pang from wondering where the kidnapping investigation and Harper household problems went in the meantime. In particular, Helen Hunt strangely disappears, which is a peculiar move to make with a movie’s marquee star, and it’s next to impossible to ignore her temporary vanishing.

Nevertheless, having Helen Hunt headline proves to be an inspired inclusion. Being a notable name allows “I See You” to ‘Janet Leigh’ audience expectations by establishing her as the film’s fulcrum only to ingeniously pull out the rug with regard to how perception plays into the value of her performance. “I See You” wouldn’t be able to stockpile as much credibility as it does without someone of Hunt’s caliber at the top of the cast.

Owen Teague’s acting also stands out. Teague terrifically turns troubling teen Alec into a darkly dangerous mind over the course of his characterization. I especially appreciate the dual-layered complexity Teague puts into body language, such as the exhilarated look on his face expressing arousal at the same time as shock, as though he cannot believe his own audacity while also being unable to cut himself off from the rush.

The catch-22 of “I See You’s” storytelling setup means that it doesn’t completely work because of its stop/start jerkiness. But it gets enough of the way there to remain captivating for the majority of its runtime. “I See You” features exemplary editing showcasing how one more or one fewer second on either side of a scene can alter your interpretation completely. Regardless of how successfully it lands for any given person, the movie interestingly plays with perspective to force viewers into repeatedly switching allegiances regarding which characters to root for.

The zigzagging domino line amplifies implausibility that can be tough to swallow too. But offering a ghost story, a “My Friend Dahmer” (review here) descent into sociopathic madness, and a serial killer procedural all in one movie keeps invested attention spans on their toes. While “I See You” is best watched on a blank slate, you may wish to prepare for a ‘creepy crawly’ movie that is utterly terrifying in its home invasion implications.

Review Score: 75