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I See You is a beautifully crafted puzzle of a horror movie

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special-event releases. This review comes from the 2019 SXSW Interactive Festival.

There’s a striking tradition of kid-disappearance movies where a traumatized parent tries to convince authorities that something has happened to their child, but evidence suggests that there was never a child in the first place. A subset of the “Who’s crazy here?” mystery, which plays with the audience’s sense of reality and understanding of a situation, movies like Bunny Lake is Missing, Flightplan, and The Forgotten rely on the audience to empathize with a protagonist who may be creating a mystery and a crisis where there isn’t one.

The narratively complicated mystery I See You plays with expectations and reality in the same way, but it’s startlingly frank about its child disappearance. In the opening scene, a boy biking through the woods is ripped violently into the air by an unseen hand, disappearing offscreen. It’s a memorable opening gambit and seemingly a declaration of a specific tone and intent for the film. But like so many elements in I See You, it establishes expectations that don’t immediately play out in the expected, familiar ways. Writer Devon Graye and director Adam Randall (of Netflix’s iBoy) use that eerie image of the flying 10-year-old to hook their audience, but the rest of the film is a much more complicated process of playing out their line, then reeling the audience back in. In this film, nothing is exactly what it seems — except when it is, and the audience just doesn’t have the tools to interpret it yet.

What’s the genre?

Horror movie, thriller, domestic drama, murder mystery, police procedural… I See You teases its way into a number of different genres, and part of the way writer Devon Graye and director Adam Randall keep audiences guessing is by keeping them guessing on the exact nature of what they’re watching.

What’s it about?

When 10-year-old Justin Whitter disappears into the woods, detective Greg Harper (Jon Tenney) and his partner Spitzky (Gregory Alan Williams) are assigned to investigate. A clue left behind links the boy’s kidnapping to a notorious child murderer Spitzky sent to jail 15 years ago, raising the question of whether he convicted the wrong man or if there’s a copycat killer haunting his town. Meanwhile, his wife Jackie (Helen Hunt) is trying to mend fences with him after having an affair, but their teenage son Connor (Judah Lewis) is acting out against her in increasingly vicious ways.

By the time strange things start happening in their home — mundane objects appearing or disappearing, household electronics spontaneously turning on, a smashed window and a window repairman who saw something unexplained — the audience already has an entire laundry list of possible explanations and suspects, enough to create any number of plausible “The filmmakers want us to think X, but it’s probably actually Y” theories. The actual truth is startling, but more importantly, it’s intriguing — the kind of reveal that opens up possibilities, instead of shutting them down.

What’s it really about?

It’s hard to get deeply into what I See You is getting at without giving too much away, but it’s safe to say that, in part, it’s about how startlingly vulnerable people can be, whether they’re facing malicious intentions they may not even be aware of, the unknown in general, or just their need for other people. Hunt, in particular, delivers a painfully raw performance, as she begs her husband for forgiveness that he meets with cold accusations or tries to keep up a brave appearance in the face of her son’s fury. But Tenney also seems vulnerable as he tries to navigate his wife’s betrayal and his suspicions about her, and Lewis gives a strong portrayal of a boy covering up his grief with aggression. There’s a lot of open need in this movie and not much of it being met.

But the film is also arguably about how easy it is for people to only see their expectations instead of the truth, and to overlook important details while they’re living out their own internal dramas. And it could just as easily be described as exploring the ways past trauma does or doesn’t explain or excuse people’s behavior.

Is it good?

I See You isn’t for everyone. The kind of people who walk into a movie expecting a given experience and get furious when, say, Cloverfield or No Country for Old Men or It Comes at Night don’t play out as they imagined, aren’t going to enjoy this movie. Neither are people who love formulaic dramas and can tolerate trailers that confirm every single story beat in a film. Even certain kinds or horror fans, who expect gobs of gore or numbing terror, may come out of it complaining. I See You is tense but only occasionally terrifying. No one’s going to be spreading Hereditary-style advance word about how it’s the scariest thing ever.

But for people who specifically prize meticulous story-craft and the ability to dodge broad genre clichés, I See You is a rare gift. It’s a tension experience that gives way to a long series of narrative surprises and payoffs, some of which viewers may not even realize they were primed to want until they arrive at the moment. This is a project for fans of Memento or Timecrimes, the kind of intricate puzzle-movies where all the pieces fit together with well-tooled precision.

None of that would matter if the dramatic segment were poorly executed. Instead, I See You dodges clichés equally adroitly in terms of directorial style. The score, by first-time film composer William Arcane, is unconventional and startling. (During one post-screening Q&A at SXSW, the filmmakers discussed how Arcane used unconventional instruments to produce the score, including wire clothes hangers. “I think at one point he said he’d got a bone clarinet, and he’d smashed holes in it, and he was making music out of things like that,” music supervisor Will Quiney said.) The cinematography is subdued but crisp, with an emphasis on artfully lit faces, producing an effect that looks more like a family drama than a supernatural horror movie. And the cast helps keep the tone subdued, yet intense.

But above all, I See You relies on its script, which builds up expectations in order to upend them, then uses its new paradigm to create a new set of anticipations. Every time the audience thinks it understands the games being played and tries to get ahead of the film, the story pulls out a new development, all the way up to the film’s final moments. It’s the kind of mystery that feels impossible to predict, even though all the clues are laid out in plain sight.

What should it be rated?

It could pass for PG. I See You is surprisingly short on graphic violence and completely devoid of nudity or sexual situations. There are some adult themes, but apart from the profanity, there’s startlingly little in this movie that couldn’t have played on-screen in the 1940s or ‘50s, when this particular brand of carefully crafted audience-tease was more common. With relatively few changes, this could have played as a double feature with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, another intricate “What’s the truth here?” mystery that rewards viewers for paying close attention.

How can I actually watch it?

I See You is currently seeking American distribution, so there’s no release date yet, but it seems inevitable that it’ll make it to theaters at some point. Just don’t mistake it for the other 2019 release called I See You (about a vlogger who accidentally captures crimes on camera), or 2016’s I See You (a Bollywood romance about a man in love with an apparent ghost), or 2016’s I See You.com (about a teenager who gets rich by filming his family’s bad behavior and streaming it online). In fact, don’t be hugely surprised if this eventually gets released with a more distinctive title.


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