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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Review: Reverse Engineering and Behind Her Eyes • by Pete Wood

Arr, ye scurvy dogs, major spoilers ahead. Ye be warned, ye landlubbers!

Here’s my beef. The entire Netflix series and Sarah Pinborough’s source novel are geared towards reaching that head-scratching double twist. Nothing the characters do matters. The genre doesn’t matter. The only goal is to reach that twist. Plausibility and tone be damned.

The story is reverse engineered. Instead of having characters behave logically, the glorified chess pieces are manipulated to reach a preordained conclusion. The story works as tense psychological thriller, but there is an abrupt genre change that had me crying foul.

It’s all about the twist. And that’s a real shame. Exquisitely acted, it’s compelling with some innovative cinematography. The first three—maybe four—episodes, at least, are top-notch. Then everything goes off the tracks.

Louise (Simona Brown), a London secretary with a young son, has an affair with her psychiatrist boss, David (Tom Bateman). She strikes up a friendship with Adele (Eve Hewson), David’s lonely wife. We also see, through flashbacks, Adele ten years ago in a rehab center with Rob (Robert Aramayo), a heroin addict from Glasgow. There is something in the past of David and Adele that allow her to blackmail him into staying in a loveless marriage.

Here’s the twist. Adele isn’t really Adele. She’s Rob. Rob is gay and jealous of rich beautiful Adele and her hunky boyfriend, David. He switched bodies with her, murdered Adele in his own body, told David “Rob” died of a drug overdose and convinced David to hide the body. Flash-forward to the present where “Adele” switches bodies with Louise and murders the new Adele in a house fire.

This works only because of reverse engineering.

Rob’s really stupid plan

Yeah, his plan succeeds, but only because the other characters are stupider than he is. Rob’s farfetched scheme has to work perfectly. First, when Adele teaches him to astral project, we accept that he in one day becomes better at it than Adele to the point where he can manipulate her. Um, okay. Then we have to accept that his plan to teach Louise astral projection works to the point where he can switch bodies with her. So, she has to want to be friends with the obviously disturbed wife of her lover, buy into the astral projection mumbo-jumbo, and then become a pro. Those three links are all pretty unlikely. What would you do? Would you become friends with your boss’s wife under those increasingly bizarre situations? Would you hang out with a clingy person with no friends and no life who wanted to teach you astral projecting?

David has to be both an asshole and deliberately vague.

David does an exceptional job of acting like a complete asshole around Louise so that we and Louise can buy into “Adele’s” story that he’s an abusive husband. He’s really the good guy, but instead of just bringing Louise up to speed on his wife’s mental health problems and penchant for committing assault, breaking and entering, and other crimes, he fires Louise and gives cryptic warnings about being involved with his wife that come across as threats. When he’s alone with Adele, he still talks in vague unhelpful terms that shed no light on what happened in the past that binds him to his wife. Even his notes in his voluminous secret Adele file that Louise steals are vague and unhelpful, often resorting to open-ended questions. Why? Because it hides the ball and preserves the twist

Louise and David must act like complete morons.

David, when Adele tells him that Rob has died of a drug overdose, doesn’t just call the cops, because that would make too much sense. Why not? Because he has to hide the body so “Adele” can blackmail him in the future for Rob’s murder. When Adele begins to act more and more disturbed, Louise keeps talking to her, despite the warnings of everybody she knows to cut the friendship off. She continues to take phone calls from a sociopath. She gives her key information which help set up the fait accompli.

And then in that twist that really got under my skin, when “Adele” texts her that she’s going to kill herself, Louise doesn’t call the cops, like any sane person would. Nope. She runs over there and, seeing the house is on fire, she astral projects inside. Why? Because we have to have the twist. She can’t help Adele as a spirit. She’s still locked out of the house. Somehow fake Adele knows this is going to happen and leaps into Louise’s body, because, you know, that was the only logical result from the plan. No chance that the cops come or Louise breaks down the door or smashes a window or Adele dies in the fire. And one more thing, at this point it’s not even clear to “Adele” that Louise has even pulled off astral projecting. Louise claims she has, but, a lot of people claim to have astral projected. Would you stake your life on it?

Astral Projecting

There are no rules to astral projecting unless they lead to the twist. Either there is a mind-body connection or there isn’t. When Louise astral projects for the first time, she is yanked back to her body when she hears her son screaming through her body. So, the soul is tethered somehow to the body. Except it isn’t, because it can jump into any body and survive. So the soul is a free agent. Except it isn’t, because it needs a body or it dies or something? Huh? So, the spirit is independent of the body until the body dies then the soul is up shit’s creek, but it can be any body that dies, not the original body? I gave up trying to figure out the rules.

Look, I’m not against unhappy endings. I’m not anti-twist either. I just ask for the ending and the twist to flow logically from the premise.

The original Planet of the Apes, On the Beach, and Colossus: The Forbin Project all have unhappy endings. Those work, because the characters follow the rules. The actions taken by Taylor, the astronaut in Planet of the Apes, make sense. He is smart and logical. The President and scientists in Colossus come up with some pretty good plans to defeat the supercomputer that has control of our nuclear arsenal. These plans fail, because the computer is smarter or due to the hubris of the characters. They don’t behave stupidly for stupid’s sake. On the Beach, about the last survivors of a nuclear war, has the bleakest of bleak endings, but we don’t get there because of the stupidity of the characters.

I found the shift in genre jarring in Behind Her Eyes. Shifts can work. Take Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby. Psycho works, I think, because it’s obviously a mystery, it’s a Hitchcock movie, and it’s titled Psycho for God’s sake. It doesn’t become a monster movie or science fiction or fantasy. It’s still grounded in the real world. We know Rosemary’s Baby is a horror movie going in. We just don’t know exactly what’s going on and gradually find out like the protagonist. Behind Her Eyes just careens from tense psychological thriller—like Jagged Edge or Fatal Attraction—to mediocre poorly explained horror about two-thirds of the way in.

In You Can Count on Me (2000) Laura Linney has an affair with her boss played by Matthew Broderick. When he tells her she’s fired she flat out refuses to leave the office, because she’ll have the sexual harassment lawsuit from Hell. He backs down. That’s what real people do. When David, conveniently acting like an asshole to reach that damned twist, fires Louise instead of talking to her and explaining about his wife, she becomes a doormat and leaves her job. She’s not a doormat. She’s assertive and resourceful when it doesn’t interfere with the twist.

I’ll be frank. I am no fan of the body-switch trope. The victim of the swap seldom behaves rationally and the perpetrator seamlessly adjusts to the new body. The Outer Limits in “The Human Factor” and The Prisoner in “Do Not Forsake Me My Darling“ made it work with the victim still having his wits about him. But those are the exceptions.

I wonder how Behind Her Eyes would have been if the characters had behaved logically. What if the fake Adele had ended up hoisted on his own petard? What if the real Adele was still lurking out there in the spirit realm and helped out somehow? That would not have been against the fast and loose rules of Astral Projection which shift, like the characters, as the story demands. Instead of asking how can I shock the viewer, why not ask how would people respond to a mind-swapping bad guy?

Stephen King is a successful writer, not just because of his horror, but also due to his characters. King sticks his characters in a supernatural situation and tries to figure out how they would respond. The mother and son get out of the Overlook hotel in The Shining. They aren’t victims of some cruel shocking twist at the end. King doesn’t reverse engineer. He doesn’t force his characters to stay in the haunted house. He lets them figure a way out.

Peter Wood
is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them.


~brb said...

Re how Stephen King does it: I think it's important to note that we're talking about how King does it in his print work. What happens in the films that get adapted from his stories and novels is pretty much out of his control.

Pete Wood said...

True. Case in point, the Shining. Kubrick kills off the Scatman Crothers character for no logical reason when he survives in the book and becomes a father figure for the boy

Slothrop said...

Good review. Body switching/disguise was mined for many a laugh by old Shakespere. Your reveiw shows perhaps it is best left to humor. Logic is indeed a tricky thing....

Pete Wood said...

Thanks for reading, Slothrop!