Every Breath You Take is a derivative, cliché-riddled yawn that would be more at home on late-night cable than on theater screens.
While its title might suggest otherwise, Vaughn Stein’s third feature — after 2018’s noir-thriller Terminal and 2020’s family-drama Inheritance (not to be confused with Ephraim Asili’s collective-set The Inheritance) — isn’t really about Big Brother’s panoptic surveillance. In fact, the signature piece from The Police doesn’t even feature in Every Breath You Take, a film set ostensibly in the present but whose artistic sensibilities are a far cry from the former’s universally ominous undertones. Adapted from a screenplay titled You Belong to Me (lyrics courtesy of The Police’s songwriter Sting) and originally slated for production in 2012 under Rob Reiner, the project found its way to Christine Jeffs, but ultimately landed on Stein’s desk the very month cameras started rolling, where the director saw in the source material a potential for both its “taut” and “tragic” elements to blend and unite. “It’s like my family’s signature,” remarks Lucy (India Eisley), the Clarks’ teenage daughter, on the tension that ensues: bubbling toward the surface, their long-standing discontentment with one another boils over and demands resolution not among themselves, but through an external party.
Such a description, however, grossly oversells both the film’s premise and presentation. The former, insofar as its subject matter involves the relationship between a psychiatrist and his patient, contents itself with a superficial application of this relationship to its subject. Philip (Casey Affleck), the said psychiatrist, finds his already unstable work-life balance crumbling away when Daphne, a particularly problematic patient of his who was on a miraculous road to recovery, is found dead of an apparent suicide. His wife Grace (Michelle Monaghan), a realtor, is distant from him; his daughter, sullen and rebellious, gets kicked out of school for doing cocaine. Without much time to process Daphne’s death, Philip meets a man on his doorstep claiming to be her brother and seeking company in this distressing period of mourning. James Flagg (Sam Claflin), a small-time British writer whose accent and gentlemanly manners stand out in the suburbs of middle-class Washington, quickly warms up to mother and daughter against the wishes of a warier Philip. Naturally, not all is what it seems.
While based on an original script, Every Breath You Take finds its footing in bromides; the laughable paucity of psychology in Stein’s characters is compensated with tired clichés derivative of other similarly lackluster screenplays. Breezing through a portrait of domestic disquiet in order to open itself up to foreign intervention, the film proves a cookie-cutter slog befitting late-night cable TV, mashing the concepts of steamy sex and violent vengeance into an unconvincing presentation bereft of either. Deception, obsession, and guilt are conveyed through Marlon Espino’s relentlessly string-heavy threnodies and Michael Merriman’s faux-emotional greyscales, whereas Affleck’s perpetually tired countenance — in a surprising display of empathy — mirrors the viewer’s own. When the tension eventually ratchets up, in a car-chase sequence cross-cutting between pursuer and pursued, an impassive distance nonetheless separates eye from emotion the same way comparisons to Hitchcock and Villeneuve do. Claflin, bravely emulating The House That Jack Built’s Matt Dillon in his unhinged aggressions, falls victim himself to the enervating inertia symptomatic of soap-opera abusers; the political and psychosexual dimensions of The Police likewise collapse, a pop classic turned to popular entertainment. “Sometimes we need to do things that scare us, in order for us to grow,” offers Grace early on. Every Breath You Take, sadly, doesn’t practice what it preaches. In servicing its tonal disquiet to the brink of staleness, every breath it manages is a heave.