Quietly premiering last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Jacob Tierney’s surprisingly nasty little thriller Good Neighbors – based on the 1982 novel by Quebec writer Chrystine Brouillet – was subsequently picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures, who chose not to release it, as some expected, under their Magnet Releasing label. But the decision makes sense; Magnet specializes in releasing films with a more obvious “genre” bent (recent titles include “Trollhunter”, “Hobo with a Shotgun”, and “I Saw the Devil”), and “Good Neighbors” can best be described as a low-key, character-based suspense/thriller with one genuinely shocking and grisly jolt at about the halfway mark.
The movie opens with Victor (Jay Baruchel) – an unassuming, gawky elementary school teacher who seems stuck in some sort of perennial adolescent awkwardness – moving into a modest Montreal apartment building in the middle of winter. Soon enough, he forms a tenuous friendship with two of his peculiar neighbors: Spencer (Scott Speedman), a wheelchair-bound, vaguely passive-aggressive thirty-something who lost the use of his legs in a car accident that killed his wife; and Louise (Parker Posey lookalike Emily Hampshire), an emotionally-arctic waitress at a local Chinese restaurant who makes up for a seeming lack of human connection by fixating on her two cats.
If it all sounds like the setup to a kooky romantic comedy – complete with requisite quirky side characters including a flamboyantly alcoholic, cat-hating middle-aged female neighbor and two gossipy older women who eye the main players with a bemused air – it certainly doesn’t play that way. Rather than accentuating the off-kilter personalities of these individuals with light musical cues and a series of flattering close-ups, the camera lingers over their uncomfortable interactions from a cold, dispassionate distance. Even Spencer and Louise – who begin the film as friends, more or less – possess an uneasy chemistry; as they sit together late at night trading theories on a serial killer that’s recently been stalking the neighborhood, they regard each other with a peculiar air of suspicion. The murders, in fact, seem like the only thing they’re interested in; when Victor asks if they’d like to get together one night to watch the results of the Quebec referendum (the film takes place around the time of the 1995 secessionist vote), they seem positively flummoxed.
The first 15 minutes or so are an exercise in establishing a very specific tone, which is easy to mistake for clumsiness until you realize that the odd sense of dislocation we feel is a deliberate artistic choice. These are three individuals who were probably never meant to be friends, and Tierney perfectly captures – particularly in a discomfiting pre-dinner scene between Victor and Spencer – the piercing awkwardness of being stuck in a room with someone you can’t quite find a connection point with.
And yet, Victor seems intent on befriending these people – or more than befriending, in Louise’s case – to the point where he seems blind to their obvious contempt for him. Though Spencer has a slick surface charm – golden good looks, the grin of a lothario – there’s something cruel about the way he looks at people, as if he’s constantly probing for weakness. And while Louise at least gets out of her apartment to go to work most days (Spencer is essentially housebound due to the building’s lack of elevators), she doesn’t seem to have much of a want or need for non-feline companions.
Not that Victor is a complete innocent. There’s something disturbing about the way he lies and tells people that he and Louise, who he’s become smitten with, are engaged to be married, even when she’s sitting within earshot. That’s a standard romantic comedy trope, too – character fibs about having a relationship with another to bolster their image or social standing – except that in a film like While You Were Sleeping, for example (which has Sandra Bullock’s character telling the family of a man in a coma that she’s his fiancé, for god’s sake), it’s usually played for laughs and cheap sentiment. Here, Tierney lays bare the troublesome implications of such a proclamation by depositing it within a film that simmers with an underlying sense of malice.
All of this being set against the looming threat of a vicious serial killer, the question then becomes just how much of this odd trio’s behavior can be chalked up to garden-variety human dysfunction, and how much is symptomatic of something more sinister. While I will say that the answer to that question seems to present itself fairly early on, around the midway point Tierney shocks us with a horrifically-staged, unexpectedly protracted murder scene – which is, without a doubt, one of the most disturbing (and blackly, blackly, blackly humorous) on-screen kills of the past several years – that presents us with a whole new layer of morbid dysfunction.
The film wouldn’t be as successful as it is, of course, were it not for three terrific lead performances. As Spencer, Speedman is the best I’ve ever seen him, skillfully pinning his character’s calculating outer charm to an uncomfortable suggestion of inner malevolence. Hampshire is equally good, inhabiting the damaged soul of the hard-bitten Louise while also managing to wring laughs out of her misanthropic temperament in unexpected places. Baruchel takes a little longer than these two to settle into his character – in the beginning his collection of nervous tics can feel distracting – but as the film goes on he succeeds in hinting at the deeper emotional insecurities that lie beneath Victor’s floundering attempts at social connection.
If the film has a central flaw, it lies in the fact that Spencer, Louise, and Victor remain something of an enigma to us throughout. While Tierney’s standoffish tone (he also wrote the script) works in conveying the essential cynicism that lies at the heart of the story – as much as we think we know people, once that door closes behind them we don’t really know them at all – it also precludes total investment in the ultimate fate of the three main characters. And while there does seem to be some political subtext at work here, it feels rather half-formed and superfluous (although in fairness, I’m not exactly a scholar of Quebecois politics). There are also a couple of nagging logic concerns I have regarding the police investigation following the second-act murder, though I won’t go into them here for fear of giving away too much of the twisty-turny plot (something the Magnolia marketing team obviously neglected to consider when they cobbled the trailer together).
These minor weaknesses aside – and to that last point – one of the central strengths of the film lies in how deftly it manages to defy audience expectations. Just when I thought I knew how things were going to play out, Tierney would toss in another left-field development to throw me off-balance. That is what a good thriller does, after all, and Good Neighbors does it better than most.