Vaughn Stein’s Every Breath You Take belongs to a nearly bygone subgenre: the domestic stalker thriller. Epitomized by Curtis Hanson’s The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, these films were particularly common in the 1990s, hinging on a fear of a traumatic event powerful enough to unravel familial bonds. A psychopath slides into heroes’ homes on waves of discord, and the genre’s perverse fun resides in watching a family’s sense of security insidiously subverted and turned against itself. This sort of amusement is nowhere to be found in Every Breath You Take, however, as the targeted family is already zombified by grief and ennui, with no illusions for a villain to shatter.
Philip (Casey Affleck) is a psychiatrist with a plumb practice and teaching position at a university. His wealth, prominence, and chilliness are succinctly embodied by his impressive home in the mountains, a chic yet impersonal blend of cabin and mansion with several wings, a pool, expensive paintings, and abundant in negative space and reflective surfaces. This set design is Every Breath You Take’s wittiest touch, an almost cheekily obvious metaphor for Philip’s alienation that may nevertheless inspire envy in the audience.
Philip’s wife, Grace (Michelle Monaghan), and teenage daughter, Lucy (India Eisley), clearly resent him for reasons that will be parceled out over the course of the film’s running time, though a hint is dropped early on when Philip boasts to a class about how he discussed personal issues with an unstable patient that he doesn’t even share with Grace. A more inventive film might poke fun at Philip’s egocentric cluelessness, but for Stein and screenwriter David Murray, the man’s behavior is only a matter of setup. Philip’s blurring of personal and professional boundaries, which may strike one as a subconscious plea for an ethics investigation, is offered up by him as an experimental therapy that can reach troubled minds where previous techniques and even medications cannot. Calamity soon ensues, though, when the patient (Emily Alyn Lind) kills herself, and her brother, James (Sam Ciaflin), comes out of nowhere and begins to show an unseemly interest in Philip’s family.
Taut and lantern-jawed, with a dreamy British accent to boot, James knows exactly what woebegone Grace and Lucy need, namely courtly attention laced with a heavy lather of sexual possibilities. And there’s the potential here for a resonant contrast between how two women informed by differing levels of maturity respond to emotional manipulation. But the filmmakers don’t really differentiate Grace and Lucy’s behavior apart from establishing the obvious differences between a married woman feeling guilty about a blossoming attraction and a young woman flush with the eagerness to have new experiences. Grace and Lucy’s scenes with James are virtually interchangeable apart from surface details, and quickly grow repetitive. But the women are more vivid than Philip, who’s played by Affleck with a risible impassivity that suggests less the character’s depression than the actor’s boredom.
Ciaflin walks away with Every Breath You Take by default, leaning into, and even parodying, James’s smug, contemptuous idea of sincerity, though his promising performance is undercut by the film’s inability to escalate or explore the ramifications of its premise. The sexual, violent impulses undergirding the narrative rarely explode, offering no great physical or emotional catharsis. Even the film’s one forbidden sex scene is vaguely and perfunctorily shot so as to not disrupt the rote, inhibited tastefulness that strands Every Breath You Take in a holding pattern. Which is to say that the film is as timid as its forgettable protagonist.