The popular interpretation of home-invasion thrillers tells us that they are funhouses of our domestic fears, But a considerable part of their appeal, in many cases, comes down to real estate porn. A home-invasion movie, in its platonic form, is an invitation to snoop and ogle a huge, art-directed, sometimes scenically secluded house—it’s Architectural Digest with masked killers, house lust with a side of breaking and entering. We may be rooting for the protagonists as they squirm and sweat and sneak around in the shadows, but our role as viewers puts us closer to the intruders. A competent home-invasion thriller will allow us to case the location, learn the floor plan, familiarize ourselves with the security systems if there are any. A really good one will recognize that the first home invader is the camera, and, by extension, the audience.
The Canadian thriller See For Me introduces us to one of those enviable pieces of real estate that is just begging for a break-in gone wrong: A mansion, located somewhere mountainous and snowy, with those huge floor-to-ceiling windows that make everything look like a diorama. Like all such places, it has a secret: A hidden safe filled with stacks of cash.
But this is all secondary. If anyone is going to remember See For Me, it’s because it is—there’s no elegant way of putting it—the home-invasion movie about a blind ex-Olympic hopeful skiing champion cat sitter. Not just any cat sitter—an elite cat sitter for the rich.
The truth is, the business with the cat is just a way to get Sophie (Skyler Davenport, who, per the press notes, is legally blind in real life) into a big, secluded, unfamiliar house. The owner is going out of town, and she’s been hired last-minute to watch the resident feline. Though the director, Randall Okita, periodically pulls out a decent David Fincher impression—shallow depth of field, crime scene close-ups, the occasional coldly interesting angle)—the opening half-hour is suspense-less and kind of plodding as we wait for intimations of something sinister. Then comes the night, and with it a team a burglars—who are, of course, initially unaware that there’s someone else in the house. For home-invasion cat-and-mouse scenarios, this is about as generic as it gets.
Before long, anyone who’s seen far too many thrillers will begin composing a mental list of missed opportunities. It’s freezing cold outside—shouldn’t this play a bigger part? What about all those little details of Sophie’s life as a blind person that Okita lavishes in close-up at the beginning of the film—couldn’t that be worked into the suspense somehow? And what about her backstory—how she was a teenage champion skier before she started to lose her eyesight?
If anything, the movie needs more skiing. The slopes are right outside! One can picture the scene: The burglars find Sophie. She puts on skis. They put on skis. The chase begins. Audience expectations are wildly subverted. See For Me could be the home-invasion movie with the blind cat-sitter and the ski chase scene. Instead, it’s the home-invasion movie with the blind cat-sitter and the app.
This is an inevitable development. Home-invasion thrillers, after all, have always kind of been about our relationship with phones, going back more than a century to the earliest recognizably modern example of the genre, the D.W. Griffith one-reeler The Lonely Villa. That film not only established some of the tropes we find in See For Me, but also the idea of the telephone as a lifeline. Clever writers eventually found ways to subvert this particular cliché, and then the subversions became clichés: the cut phone line, the call that’s coming from inside the house. Then cell phones came along and ruined movies forever. No other technology has managed to make so many different stories obsolete.
Thus the phone became the enemy of the script. For home-invasion movies (and thrillers in general), this has entailed elaborate games of keep-away. Phones need to be lost, misplaced, smashed, stolen. Considering how much narrative logic they expend on trying to solve the problem of mobile telecommunications, one could even make the argument that the main paranoid influence in these movies is no longer a fear of incursion into one’s private space, but a more modern techno-social anxiety: that irrational feeling that one’s entire life depends on uninterrupted access to a smartphone.
Which brings us to the app, the See For Me of the title. The idea is that it connects a visually impaired user to a sighted volunteer who looks through the user’s phone camera and describes what’s in front of them—in case, for instance, they need someone to read the expiration date on a carton of milk. (The concept is taken from a real app, Be My Eyes.) Sophie begrudgingly downloads the app near the beginning of the film after accidentally locking herself out of the mansion, and is connected to a gamer named Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy). This becomes the film’s central gimmick and its putative thematic through line: Sophie needs Kelly to understand what’s going on around her, but she also needs to learn to accept help, be less stubborn, etc.
One can sort of see what the film’s screenwriters, Adam Yorke and Tommy Gushue, were trying to do here. They’ve written a home-invasion thriller with a blind protagonist—a premise that was made famous more than half a century ago by Wait Until Dark, and was more recently inverted in the reverse home-invasion thriller Don’t Breathe. (Hush, in which the protagonist is deaf rather than blind, is another variation on the idea.) Yet they don’t want the character to be defined by her blindness, or to make a movie about someone “overcoming” an impairment.
This is admirable, and, to the writers’ credit, they do come up with a fun wrinkle that also briefly introduces some welcome moral ambiguity. Once the burglars realize that Sophie is blind (and therefore can’t identify any of them), it becomes clear that she’s less of a potential witness than a potential accomplice. If she can get rid of the cop who’s already on the way to the mansion, she’ll not only be safe from harm, but will get a cut of the loot. Unfortunately, this idea is only good for a few minutes of onscreen tension.
This is pervasive problem in See For Me: While it’s able to periodically introduce a sense of danger—the burglars’ arrival, the sequence with the cop—it never creates the necessary continuity of dread and suspense. One suspects that this has something to do with the nature of these kinds of thrillers: They do not appeal to our good side. A lot of the best ones are made by control freaks and pervs, people who really do want to sneak up on their characters in the dark. The team behind See For Me are probably too well-intentioned in matters of representation, and too aware of the dangers of the Gaze, to encourage anyone’s voyeurism or sadism. This doesn’t mean that all it takes to make an effective thriller is a slightly sick imagination. But making people uncomfortable in careful proportions is an art.
Which is not say that See For Me doesn’t accidentally end up in some unsettling territory. The app gimmick means that Kelly occasionally has to guide and control Sophie like a video game character—and in the climax, her first-person-shooter skills do come into play. This is presumably meant to make us feel good: It’s a sign of their teamwork, of Sophie overcoming her fear of being helped by others. But it’s also one person controlling a gun-waving stranger via a phone app, telling them to shoot at real people. What kind of creepy minds would come up with that?