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‘Good Neighbours’: a Montreal-set thriller gone tragically wrong

Good Neighbours
Written by Jacob Tierney
Directed by Jacob Tierney
Canada, 2010

Essentially a misbegotten remake of Shallow Grave without an ounce of that film’s humor or thrills, Good Neighbours is a daring but nevertheless disappointing attempt at a psychological thriller, buoyed by the early promise of a novel setting and quirky characters, but ultimately done in by its tonal miscalculation and distinct lack of wit. It’s always admirable when a filmmaker refuses to coast, and here Tierney pivots from feather-light comedy (The Trotsky) into some very dark territory, but unfortunately very little of Good Neighbours works.

Tierney’s third feature as screenwriter, adapting from Chrystine Brouillet’s novel, opens solidly enough .Neighbours unspools over four months in second-referendum-era Montreal (October to February 1995/96), an ideal setting for an Anglo-Quebec production meant to be rife with tension. Its awkward Anglo protagonist Victor (Jay Baruchel) has just returned from teaching abroad, and is settling into a new apartment in Notre-Dame-de-Grace. There, he meets two of his more conspicuous neighbors: Louise (Emily Hampshire), a skittish cat obsessive, and Spencer (Scott Speedman), whose wheelchair-bound status is the apparent cause of his barely contained bitterness. The friction in the building is bad enough (including Victor’s naive assumption that his English-speaking neighbors will salute the referendum results with proud solidarity) without the addition of a roving serial killer, who’s been targeting local women, having already killed one of Louise’s so-workers.

After establishing its pleasingly specific milieu (a quality it shares with The Trotsky), Neighbors quickly loses steam, largely thanks to left-field character decisions that don’t work in the film’s favor. Though Victor is our ostensible entry point to this gang of misfits, he’s hopelessly uncharismatic, working neither as a buffoonish loser or as a charming nerd – he merely alternates between being gutless and slightly creepy. It doesn’t help that Baruchel opts to amp his trademark nervous tics – all of them – to 11, in nearly every scene  So it might seem to be for the best that Louise gets at least as much screentime, but her pathology is never convincingly portrayed; the novelty value of a “cat lady” who’s not an elderly coot wears off quickly, and the character doesn’t have much else to offer beyond her unsettling bestial streak. That leaves Spencer, who, partially thanks to Speedman’s quietly raging turn, at least leaves an impression, but an ill-considered second-act plot development deflates much of his character’s mystique. Even the intriguing setting’s appeal wears off: the simmering cultural tension exploited in early scenes is dropped entirely by the time the bodies start piling up.

The increasingly cluttered plot (eventually involving the serial killer, Victor’s abortive attempts to woo the charmless Louise, to whom he is inexplicably attracted, a feud with a foul fourth neighbour, and a pair of featureless detectives) is completely devoid of tension thanks to our profound lack of investment in this gang of ciphers, whose increasingly alienating behavior only seems to add bloat. The only plausibly satisfying route to take with this material might have been to build comic momentum from the demented proceedings, but Tierney insists on a straight-faced, even grim tone, which is directly at odds with the thin characters and their less-than-cunning schemes. That the movie’s only truly memorable scene resorts to recently-thawed reproductive materials, a deviously applied sex toy, and copious amounts of arterial spray says it all. Here’s hoping Tierney gets his mojo back for the next one.

Simon Howell