Executing an engrossing thriller isn’t the easiest of feats. Every Breath You Take can attest to how difficult it can be to hook an audience while delivering intensity along with a few twists and turns. The cast does a lot of the heavy lifting in the film, which evades exploring the characters’ trauma. The emotional drama is a vehicle fueling a messy story in a film primarily concerned with elevating the mystery that so easily unravels by the end.
Three years following the death of their son, Phillip (Casey Affleck), a psychiatrist researching new ways to help his patients, and Grace (Michelle Monaghan), a realtor, are coping in their own ways. Phillip dives head-first into his work while growing distant from his family (to the point of frustration), Grace makes attempts to maintain normalcy and balance, and daughter Lucy (India Eisley) is expelled from school. Their life is completely upended after Phillip’s patient, Daphne, dies in what looks like a suicide. When her brother James Flagg (Sam Claflin), an author, is welcomed into Phillip’s home and life, things take a strange and dangerous turn.
While Every Breath You Take subverts audiences’ expectations at first, changing direction following the opening sequence’s tragic accident, the film misses the opportunity to explore the trauma and grief over losing a child. Perhaps this avenue is what director Vaughn Stein and writer David K. Murray were trying to avoid, but its utter lack of exploration weighs heavily on the film that is somehow less exciting and rich because of its avoidance to delve deeper. Phillip’s research study — which sees him offering up his own life’s stories to make Daphne comfortable with sharing her own and therefore making her feel less alone — is interesting on its own. However, the film weaponizes it to fuel the actions of James, turning the story into a high-stakes thriller, one that becomes as exhausting as it is somewhat flat. Even in its most thrilling moments, the film relies heavily on predictable tropes, with the story never getting past the parameters it’s clearly set up.
What’s more, there’s little logic with regards to some of the plot, which hinges on the mystery that is James and why he’s trying to grow closer to Phillip’s family. By the time of the final twist, Every Breath You Take will leave viewers scratching their heads wondering why Phillip didn’t do a more thorough Google search. So focused on unraveling Phillip’s family, career, and sense of security, the film sidesteps much of the emotional hardship that would have amplified several of its key moments. Most frustrating is the portrayal of India Eisley’s Lucy, who fulfills the role of an emotionally moody and distant teenager, but is perhaps the most underdeveloped character.
Sam Claflin does most of the heavy lifting here, portraying James with a balance of charisma, elusive allure, and calculated danger. The actor has been in dramas, fantasies, and romance movies, but he’s never played a twisted character like James before and it’s engaging to watch Claflin in the role as his character unravels. James’ appearance seems questionable right from the start, though the extent to which he’s untrustworthy ends up being the true surprise. Affleck’s performance is alright by comparison. He’s broody and incapable of expressing his feelings. In these instances, the actor plays Phillip as a man so close to his feelings imploding if pushed just far enough. While the story is largely focused on Affleck’s character, it’s Monaghan who outshines him in her smaller role. The actress is excellent at conveying grief, terror, and a sighing exhaustion that lingers in almost all of her interactions. She’s a woman just trying to get by, tempering the full breadth of her emotions that are so close to, and yet so far from, the surface.
Every Breath You Take has a lot of ideas that, separately, might have worked. Unfortunately, the film, while cohesive, never lives up to the potential of the story it sets up at the beginning. Psychological thrillers are interesting when actually exploring the interiority of its characters, but Every Breath You Take barely gets past the surface of the themes or backstories it presents. It turns its focus to the building tension, but it would have been more satisfying if Stein and Murray had lingered longer on the characters. As the plot grows more tedious, the film falters in its ability to bring everything together. Twists and turns can only do so much.
Every Breath You Take is playing in select theaters and is available on premium video on demand April 2, 2021. The film is 105 minutes long and is rated R for some violence and language, and brief sexuality.