In the wearily predictable 1990s throwback sphere that Every Breath You Take inhabits, the combination of a comfortably upper middle-class family navigating a rough patch while living in modernist real-estate porn invariably means they will repair their frayed bonds by slamming around that house fighting for their lives against a raging psychotic in the final reel. Especially when there’s a stranger with a crisp English accent and cut-glass cheekbones involved, accompanied at all times by a fretful string score. Beyond its overqualified cast and eyebrow-raising plot points, this pedestrian psychological revenge thriller offers few surprises.
The script by David K. Murray has been kicking around since 2012, when it was first announced as a Rob Reiner project touted as being in the Cape Fear mold. Harrison Ford and Zac Efron initially were in talks to star, but the current cast came together in fall 2019, with New Zealand director Christine Jeffs attached at that time. She dropped out soon after and was replaced by Vaughn Stein (Terminal, Inheritance). The original title was You Belong to Me, which suggests the producers have been scanning Police lyrics for a catchy phrase, regardless of its relevance to the contrived story.
A prologue shows doting mother Grace (Michelle Monaghan) driving her preteen son Evan (Brenden Sunderland) to ice hockey practice one night when they are blindsided at an intersection by another vehicle and the boy is killed.
An unspecified period of time later, Grace works through her grief by swimming vigorous laps in the pool of their sleek Pacific Northwest home. Her husband Philip (Casey Affleck) has thrown himself into his work as a therapist on the faculty of a local psychiatry institute. Their surviving teenage daughter Lucy (India Eisley) has been kicked out of boarding school after being caught snorting coke. It becomes clear that each family member has retreated into his or her own private pain, with communication and emotional support lost along the way.
A peek into one of Philip’s sessions with his patient Daphne (Emily Alyn Lind) reveals her to be a fragile case, with a history of psychosis in her family, multiple suicide attempts and an abusive boyfriend whom she appears to have exchanged for an unhealthy fixation with her shrink. But Philip sees her as a triumph of unorthodox methodology. Giving the patient a false name, he discloses in a college lecture that he broke with the standard approach by sharing his own trauma and other details of his personal life with her, allowing her to feel less alone. Months later, she’s off her meds and writing a book about her journey out of darkness.
Faculty dean Dr. Vanessa Fanning (Veronica Ferres) is European, so she knows better. She’s concerned about Philip’s professional heedlessness, justifiably so given that only a Dumbass Movie Therapist would attempt such a treatment with a clearly unstable patient. But Philip dismisses Vanessa’s worries as “old-school.” Soon after, he gets a panicked call from Daphne, whose best friend has been killed in a hit-and-run accident. He arranges to see her the next day but she dies that same night in an apparent suicide, leaving her English-educated brother James (Sam Claflin) distraught.
When James shows up at Philip’s house to return a book Daphne had borrowed, Grace invites him to stay for dinner while sullen Lucy breaks character by shooting swooning glances across the table. “Family’s all there is,” James tells Philip in a code-orange warning sign. “And you have a great one.”
Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of by-the-numbers psycho-thrillers will see the hairy direction James’ interaction with the family is headed as soon as he starts gently romancing Lucy while signing up real estate broker Grace to handle the sale of his dead sister’s palatial house. “The deepest hurt I’ve ever felt was when I tried to do good and was shamed for it,” says James, quoting Daphne in a line that doesn’t make much sense even in retrospect.
Claflin turns on the icy charm effectively enough, with Philip catching on sufficiently early to guess that James is behind the complaint letters discrediting him with the faculty and the Washington State Board of Psychiatry. The damage inflicted on his family by years of silence and unprocessed grief provides James with a way in, not to mention personal info he’s gleaned from Daphne’s detailed writings. A terrifying scare reveals his violent intentions, but Murray’s screenplay adheres to the formula by having everyone relax too soon before hitting them with an inevitable twist and unleashing a final round of vicious punishment.
Stein puts a workmanlike stamp on the material with little discernible flair, though DP Michael Merriman at least brings some visual moodiness to the many night scenes of cars snaking along freeways through dense woodlands. (Location shooting took place in Vancouver.) The movie makes vague nods to the corrosive effects of bereavement left untended, but this is basically glossy pulp, mildly classed up by decent actors. The always compelling Monaghan in particular comes close at times to creating an affecting character, though Affleck is not going to be many people’s idea of a specialized medical academic, less and less so with every unsound decision Philip makes.
Production companies: Southpaw Entertainment, in association with Construction Filmproduktion, Trinity Media Financing International, Vertical Entertainment
Distribution: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Sam Claflin, Veronica Ferres, India Eisley, Emily Alyn Lind, Vincent Gale, Hiro Kanagawa, Brenden Sunderland
Director: Vaughn Stein
Screenwriter: David K. Murray
Producers: Richard Barton Lewis, Veronica Ferres, Morgan Emmery, Jean-Charles Levy
Executive producers: Julian Gross, Kevin Leeson, Jamie Goehring, Shawn Williamson, Neil Shroff, Tannaz Anisi, Gregory R. Schenz, Casey Affleck, Gabrielle Jerou-Tabak, Steven Toll, Randy Toll, Jonathan Levin, Robert Williams, Jim Kohlberg, Luke Parker Bowles, Peter Jarowey, Rich Goldberg, Mitch Budin
Director of photography: Michael Merriman
Production designer: Jeremy Stanbridge
Costume designer: Odessa Bennett
Music: Marlon E. Espino
Editor: Laura Jennings
Casting: Maureen Webb, Colleen Bolton
Rated R, 105 minutes