I See You (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Video
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (16th June 2020).
The Film

I See You (Adam Randall, 2019)

Synopsis:
The Harper household is tense. Teenage son Connor (Judah Lewis) behaves coldly to his mother Jackie (Helen Hunt), a counsellor. Meanwhile, Connor’s father Greg (Jon Tenney) has been sleeping on the sofa and refuses to speak to Jackie. Jackie, it is revealed, has been having an affair with a colleague, Todd (Sam Trammell).

Greg is a detective, and with his partner Spitzky (Gregory Alan Williams), he is asked to work on the case of a 10 year old boy who has gone missing whilst cycling home through woodland. At the scene of the disappearance, police find a green pocket knife. Spitzky recalls a case he helped to solve a number of years back in which a man was convicted of murdering six boys – and left a green pocket knife at the scenes of these crimes. As the culprit of those crimes is serving life in prison, Spitzky and Greg begin to wonder if they are dealing with a copycat.

Meanwhile, during the working day Jackie returns home and is shocked to find a workman in the house; he claims he was let in by a young woman who he presumed to be the Harpers’ daughter.

Whilst Greg is at work, Todd turns up on the Harper’s doorstep, hoping to reconcile with Jackie. However, an object falls from one of the windows on first floor of the house; Todd falls down, apparently dead. Jackie believes Connor dropped the object onto Todd; she drags Todd’s body into the garage. When Greg returns home, he reminds Jackie that Connor could face serious consequences, and to avoid this the couple drive Todd’s body out into the woods and bury it in a shallow grave. Meanwhile, back at the house, Connor is attacked and knocked unconscious by someone wearing a bizarre frog mask.

Shaky handheld camerawork follows as we see, from their point-of-view, two young people – Alec (Owen Teague) and Mindy (Libe Barer) – sneak into the Harper house and conceal themselves in an attic bedroom. This is something that took place before the disappearance of the boy in the woods. Alec and Mindy have been ‘phrogging’ – living in the Harper household, their presence hidden from the homeowners. We see the same events unfold from Alec and Mindy’s perspective, and the story begins to draw attention to horrors that are much closer to the Harper home than previously imagined.

Critique: I See You begins with a sequence in which a young boy goes missing. The film opens on a pleasant day, children buying ice creams from an ice cream truck parked on the street. The soon-to-be-missing boy, ten years old, is shown cycling home through woodland, a mobile camera suggesting that the child is being watched by something hidden from sight. (This is a ploy with which audiences will have become familiarised since the halcyon days of the slasher movies of the late-1970s/early-1980s.) Suddenly, the boy is knocked backwards by an unseen force, causing him to fly backwards. It’s a startling effect which, misleadingly, suggests the presence of the supernatural within the narrative, though this is debunked/counteracted by later developments in the story.

In the special features on this disc, director Adam Randall and producer Matt Waldeck talk at length about how they intended to wrong-foot the audience by suggesting in this opening sequence that the story would be about a supernatural force, then reveal later in the narrative that the antagonist is simply flesh and blood. It seems fairly clear that the filmmakers intended to take a page out of the playbook Hitchcock refined in Psycho (1960), switching gears mid-narrative and asking the audience to rethink their understanding of what they have seen. We are taken back to the beginning of the story, as Alec and Mindy sneak into the Harper home and conceal themselves in an attic room; much of what follows offers an alternate perspective, from that of Alec and Mindy, on many of the key story events we have already seen from the Harpers’ point-of-view. The overall effect is comparable to Kurosawa’s Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950) in terms of investigating the subjectivity of ‘truth’ within a narrative. However, such an approach to storytelling in cinema can risk alienating the viewer, and though I See You contains some very atmospheric sequences – carried largely by some very moody lighting, and camerawork and editing which displays a confidence in the audience’s patience for long-takes and smooth, mobile camerawork – in toto the picture is arguably less than the sum of its parts.

This may be owing to the manner in which the shooting schedule and budget constraints necessitated, according to comments made by Randall and Waldeck in the commentary on the disc, the removal of a number of subplots and red herrings – forcing concentration onto the main action and topic of ‘phrogging’. For instance, the initial shooting script included a number of scenes, eliminated in the final shooting script, that suggested the ice cream van introduced in the opening scene may have been involved in the abduction of the boy. These were stripped from the finished picture in order to meet the shooting schedule and budget, and also to streamline the narrative.

As noted above, some of the camerawork is superb. There are some incredible long takes in which the camera, mounted on a stabilising rig (perhaps a Steadicam rig), prowls around the Harper household, which in combination with the widescreen framing suggests the influence of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) in particular – which is a film that also walks a fine tightrope between human malice and the supernatural. In fact, the revelation of the true antagonist within I See You may be considered an exercise in highlighting the banality of evil – which would be novel but for the fact that we have seen this enacted in countless prior films, notably Hitchcock’s Psycho, which as previously suggested seems to be a major point of influence on I See You.

From the first scene set in the Harper household, the audience is led to believe something is amiss in the relationships between the characters. As Jackie cooks pancakes with an ingratiating smile, son Connor is surly and unresponsive. Greg has slept on the sofa. ‘I keep passing out in front of the TV’, he tells Connor unconvincingly; and it is revealed that Connor has been getting into fights at school. There are oblique references to something that Jackie has done, and it is only later that we discover she has been having an affair with Todd. Later, Connor confronts Jackie, angrily telling her, ‘You ruined our family, and you should fucking pay for it!’ These are words which will become deeply ironic as the film heads towards its final scenes. Certainly, Jackie seems to feel the full brunt of her actions when she and Greg drive Todd’s body out into the woods, Greg digging a shallow grave for it whilst Jackie pleads ‘I’m sorry!’ over and over.

Mindy and Alec’s disruption to the Harper family unit is represented by a shift in camerawork. After Jackie and Greg bury Todd’s body in the woods, the previously sedate camerawork is replaced, briefly, by frenzied footage shot from the point-of-view of a hand-held video camera. The footage shot on the handheld camera was recorded by Mindy, who claims to be making ‘a documentary. It’s to give you a look at how a professional phrog goes about phrogging. They call us “phrogs” because we hop from pad to pad, undetected by other people who actually live in the house’. This is part of an extended flashback that takes us back to the arrival of Mindy and Alec in the Harper family home, and offers a Rashomon-like alternate perspective – from Mindy and Alec’s point-of-view – on many of the key events we have already seen. In particular, we discover that it was Alec who dropped the object which landed on Todd. ‘Wouldn’t it be kind of funny to fuck with them, take some random shit so they think they’re going crazy?’, Alec asks a disbelieving Mindy.

The dysfunctional Harper family unit is juxtaposed with the relationship between Alec and Mindy. Mindy, it seems, has introduced Alec to ‘phrogging’, and she has a strong code of ethics about the activity. The more outwardly passive Alec, however, sees phrogging as an opportunity to cause havoc – to throw a spanner in the works of the suburban bourgeois, and to play God with the owners of the luxurious home into which he and Mindy break. ‘Isn’t that part of the fun, almost getting caught?’, Alec asks. ‘No, the fun is to not come close to getting caught’, Mindy tells him sharply: ‘That’s not how this works. We don’t mess with these people. We don’t terrorise them. We co-exist’. ‘Then what’s the point?’, Alec asks, ‘What’s the point if we don’t make them question their sanity a little?’ Alec is motivated, it seems, by jealousy. These incidents begin small – Alec pissing on Greg as he sleeps – and escalate to the moment in which Alec drops the object on Todd.

Video

Filling approximately 30Gb of a dual-layered Blu-ray disc and with a running time of 97:41 mins, I See You is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The film is presented in its intended aspect ratio of 2.40:1. Shot on digital video, I See You opens in daylight but is dominated by low-light interiors. These are carried well in this presentation, midtones being rich and detailed with a good drop into the toe of the exposure. Blacks are sometimes mildly ‘crushed’ though this would seem to be a product of the digital photography rather than a ‘flaw’ in this transfer. For the most part, lighting and colour are naturalistic, but there are some scenes which feature highly expressionistic use of coloured lights and gels. There is some SD footage with a noticeable, and deliberate, shift in texture – presented as footage from the camera used by Mindy and Alec. Finally, the encode to disc is strong, with no noticeable issues with artifacting, etc.

NB. Full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.





Audio

The disc is presented with the option of a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track or a LPCM 2.0 stereo track. Both tracks are clean and deep, with excellent range. The surround track is a little more atmospheric, with some clever use of ambient sounds. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are provided. These are easy to read and accurate.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary by Adam Randall & Matt Waldeck. The film’s director and producer discuss the film. They talk about their intentions with the film, exploring the manner in which they attempted to build a sense of mystery by integrating various red herrings into the narrative, some of which had to be dropped in production owing to budget and scheduling limitations.

- ‘The Making of I See You’ (12:01). This slick EPK-style featurette features the cast and principal crew, interviewed on the film’s sets, talking about the picture. There is also some interesting behind the scenes footage of the production. Though clearly a promotional featurette, this reveals some major plot points.

- Interview with Helen Hunt (4:48). Hunt talks about her character and role in the film’s narrative. Some of this interview appears in the ‘making of’ featurette.

- Interview with Adam Randall (4:26). Randall discusses his approach to directing the material. Again, some of this appears in the ‘making of’ featurette.

- ‘Shooting the Opening Scene’ (0:41). This brief behind the scenes clip shows how one of the key effects in the film’s opening sequence was achieved.

- Trailer (2:22).

- Image Gallery (303 images). These production stills are strangely low-contrast, like unprocessed RAW files. They are also bizarrely un-edited: eg, two near-identical still frames of the same take/setup. My guess is that they are simply still frames/grabs taken from the un-processed digital video files rather than ‘actual’ on-set/unit stills. (This seems to be fairly common with some productions today, according to a number of leading unit stills photographers I interviewed for an academic conference a couple of years ago. Listen up, production companies: hire dedicated unit stills photographers rather than taking frame grabs from the digital video files! The results will be far better.)

Overall

I See You is slickly made and with some excellent performances, though the narrative doesn’t quite hold together as well as it perhaps could have. The shift in focus from the Harpers to the phroggers Alec and Mindy is clever and well-handled, though the suggestions of the supernatural in the film’s opening sequence sets up expectations that some viewers will find frustrated by the end of the picture. Arguably, the narrative could have made more explicit the envy that Alec seems to feel for the Harpers’ wealth. On the whole, it feels like -as the extra material on this disc suggests – the script was reworked quickly in order to meet budget constraints and a condensed production schedule. That said, it’s an effective picture and the filmmakers’ efforts to manipulate audience sympathies should be applauded for giving some complexity to the material.

Arrow’s Blu-ray release of the film is very good. The digitally shot feature is nicely presented on this disc. The contextual material is mostly EPK-style ‘fluff’ though the commentary with director Randall and producer Waldeck offers some very interesting insight into the logistics involved in making an independent genre picture such as this.

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