The fact that it’s a very complicated matter even identifying the “I” and “you” in “I See You” is just a sample of the narrative tricks in this very tricksy thriller. Working from an impressive first produced screenplay by actor Devon Graye, Adam Randall’s film is an eerie suspense exercise that starts out looking like a supernatural tale — one of several viewer presumptions this cleverly engineered narrative eventually pulls the rug out from under. Saban Films opens it on 10 U.S. screens this Friday, while Paramount is handling concurrent home-formats release. Long-term viability as a streaming offering is assured, while the distinctive plotting may well lure offshore remake bids.
Philipp Blaubach’s probing, restless camera charges the very air with unseen menace from the start, as a 10-year-old boy bicycles home through a picturesque small-town, his progress down a forest trail violently curtailed by some invisible barrier or force. That sense of omnipresent malevolence continues even within the comfortable confines of the Harper home, where TV news reports soon note the aforementioned lad as the latest victim in a disturbing series of local child disappearances.
The atmosphere is already uncomfortable here for other reasons, however: Jackie Harper (Helen Hunt) is getting a very cold shoulder from both police-detective husband Greg (Jon Tenney) and teenage son Connor (Judah Lewis) for a transgression we realize after a while is infidelity. She’s very, very sorry, but nobody is in a forgiving mood yet, with Connor particularly incensed. Thus, when a series of odd occurrences commence — an entire drawer of utensils vanishes, family pictures disappear from the wall, etc. — the Harpers assume one another is responsible, or in particular that surly Connor is “acting out.”
Meanwhile Greg and his colleagues (including Gregory Alan Williams and Erika Alexander) investigate the apparent renewal of youth abductions — which is rendered all the more disturbing for the fact that the person assumed responsible for a string of identical prior kidnappings/murders has been in prison for some time now.
As our suspicions grow that something malignant is stalking the Harpers in their own home, things take a turn with a surprise visit from the old flame (Sam Trammell) Jackie strayed with, and whom she now desperately wishes would go away. His arrival seems to spike the inexplicable domestic phenomena, fast turning one crisis into a worse one. But at around the 45-minute mark, “I See You” abruptly rewinds, replaying previously-seen events from the perspective of new characters played by Owen Teague and Live Barer. We may think their introduction definitively turns this from one kind of story into another. But, in fact, scenarist Graye isn’t finished upending our assumptions yet.
After his narrative strings are finally pulled together in a long, wordless final sequence, you may begin to reflect that the film’s primary separate plot elements aren’t really connected save by happenstance. But the perfect storm their collision creates is handled with such skillful assurance by Randall (“Level Up,” “iBoy”) that the proceedings never seen overly contrived or hyperbolic, as they easily might have. It’s a story with much disturbing content that nonetheless largely avoids explicit violence. Expectations are subverted on other levels as well — for instance, in the way that top-billed Hunt starts out as our primary viewpoint, yet her character gradually grows less and less central to what’s really going on.
Strong performances down the line provide psychological credibility to an astute overall package that manages to eke considerable sinister atmosphere from any number of perfectly pleasant locations in the greater Cleveland, Ohio area. A particular plus is William Arcane’s unsettling score.