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Director: David Farr
Writer: David Farr (screenplay)
Stars: Clémence Poésy, David Morrissey, Stephen Campbell Moore, Laura Birn
The story is not new. Nice couple meet curiously odd couple and things go bad from there. There’s a lot familiar here and little in the way of innovation, but the story grips and combined with good direction and convincing performances paired with a creepy aseptic style, it’s makes for a serviceable thriller.
Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) are doing well. They have good friends, living comfortably and expecting their first child. They are on the top floor of a two-story home in a nice neighborhood. Recently, a new couple has moved in on the bottom floor. All Kate and Justin know is they leave their shows outside the door and and are quite. Justin is content to keep it that way, but Kate is curious and when she sees out the window that the woman is also pregnant, she makes an attempt to reach out. The two meet and the women click, though Kate catches a certain riskiness in her new friend Theresa (Laura Birn), but it’s more intriguing than worrisome.
Eventually, Kate and Justin invite the couple to join them for dinner, still not having met Theresa’s husband. When they do, they are a bit put off by his aggressive, rather cold temperament. Jon (David Morrissey) is noticeably older, lived in Japan for ten years (hence the shoes) and is visibly angered by the success of Kate and Justin’s first try at having a baby, confessing it took seven years to conceive with Theresa. Meanwhile, behind his back, Theresa continues to drink wine.
What happens next I won’t divulge, but it is the film’s most chilling and effective moment, an incident that sparks a frightful run of contention between the four. Jon and Theresa pack up and travel for a few months, and by the time they return, Kate has given birth to Billy and the four make tentative amends. But it doesn’t last.
Directed by David Farr, in his debut, The Ones Below starts well and creates well-paced and effective rise in tension. Jon and Theresa are cookie cutter archetypes and would repel just about anyone with common sense after one meeting, but this is not about real life so that’s easy to over look. We aren’t really given any indication about their peculiar behavior or wildly plasticine lifestyle. Living in Japan really doesn’t explain the decor, the hospital corners sterility, and Barbie and Ken doll wardrobes. Still, they are deliciously menacing enough that it doesn’t take too much effort to get invested. But cracks are revealed as the story progresses, especially as the plot is meant to convince us that one of the four is slowly, mentally crumbling. The lengths taken to make that seem real are the very definition of suspended belief with coincidences and contrivances the name of the game.
Looking past these oddities, as one often must in this genre, Farr finds the right touch in setting up the last act, and we can see the influences of some of the greats in his framing and pacing, with bits of Roman Polanki and Brian De Palma oozing from several particularly arranged shots. The small cast is a great choice and the sense of isolation in these two couples is really dynamic, especially after the opening moments. Their world is nearly devoid of people. Aside from employees in Justin’s large cubicle office, who he has zero interaction with in two scenes where he literally runs out, their world is like the opening of 28 Days Later. Twice at a riverside park lined with homes and apartments, there is not a soul in sight as the main characters make their way through the set. It’s a clear directorial choice and really layers the story in questions concerning what is true and what is not. The only other person who has any significant lines is Kate’s mother (Deborah Findlay), who has two brief scenes and is set up to have a troubled relationship with her daughter but it’s not really explored and comes and goes unnecessarily.
The Ones Below is not a horror movie, and it’s not quite a thriller. It feels like it could have been more and in fact, based on the absent answers about Jon and Theresa’s behavior and the odd appearances of Kate’s mother, seems likely there was some tampering happening behind the scenes that led to some excising in order to retro fit the film into a genre it wasn’t meant to be aligned with. That’s less a criticism than an observation, but worth pointing out. A solid entry and a worth a look, The Ones Below can’t quite reach the level you’ll really wish it was going, but still manages to entertain.