What happens when you’re faced with the knowledge that you’re neighbor is a serial killer? That’s the question asked in “Good Neighbours” (it’s a Canadian film, hence the spelling), the second collaboration between director Jacob Tierney and actor Jay Baruchel (they teamed on last year’s tepid “The Trotsky“), a whodunit without a mystery and a thriller missing the thrills.
In the press notes to the film, the premise is describe as “not so much a ‘whodunit’ as a ‘whosgunnagetit.'” It’s a nifty approach which makes us wonder all the more why the film is still structured as a traditional Agatha Christie-style puzzler. When the film opens, Victor (Baruchel) has just moved to Montreal from Ottawa, but he couldn’t have picked a worst time to come. It’s winter and the city is edgy thanks to the upcoming referendum (the movie is set in 1995) in addition to a serial killer on the loose who is preying on young women. For his neighbors in the apartment building in which he lives — the wheelchair-bound Spencer (Scott Speedman) and the loopy Louise (Emily Hampshire) — both the referendum and serial killer are news items more for their entertainment than anything worth seriously considering, but Victor finds himself consumed by both. He takes to walking Louise home from work after a co-worker becomes the latest victim, and an early dinner party between the three is centered around the referendum results entirely at Victor’s insistence.
But there’s a problem right from the very first moments of the film. We know exactly who the rapist is. And while Tierney wants his film to be a “whosgunnagetit,” his script still spends three quarters of the film getting to the reveal that you already know is coming. So, until we get there, a side plot — that eventually folds into the main arc — uncoils involving Louise and her neighbor Valerie (Anne-Marie Cadieux). Louise is a bit of a crazy cat lady (the way she acts around her two pets Mozart and Tia Maria is almost creepily erotic), and her four legged friends are getting into the garbage of the chain smoking, alcoholic and neurotic Valerie. Meanwhile, the clueless landlady Mme Gauthier (Micheline Lanctot) watches from the sidelines, hoping that Louise and Spencer hook up, and shaking her head at the exasperating antics of Valerie.
As the running time rolls on, the film becomes less of a “whosgunnagetit” into “whenaretheygunnafinallygettoit.” Shot and set in Montreal, we wish we could say the surroundings gave the film a distinctive flavor, but sadly, they don’t. Filmed in the Anglophone neighborhood of NDG, we suppose Tierney chose to set the film around the referendum to add an extra layer of tension to the proceedings, but it simply doesn’t work. The film mostly takes place within the apartment complex of the three lead characters and our only real taste of the intense anxiety felt by both Francophones and Anglophones around the time of the vote is pitched through the borderline psychotic Valerie who is mostly a caricature of a pure laine Quebecois. As this writer lives in Montreal and knows how complex relations between French, English and those in between can be, the film barely begins to scratch the surface of those feelings. Worse, unless you’re actually familiar with the politics, most of the talk around the vote will be meaningless and add little to the experience.
By time the third act arrives and Victor is forced to reckon with what he knows, “Good Neighbours” finally comes to life but it’s far too little and much too late. Predictability plagues the film and even as Victor hatches an elaborate plan, audiences who have been half paying attention or even just walked in, will be able to figure out exactly what he’ll do (the fact that he half explains it away to Louise doesn’t help in establishing any tension). Eagle-eyed fans of Canadian film may be curious if only to check out brief appearances by Xavier Dolan and the excellent needs-to-get-more-work Kaniehtiio Horn. As for Baruchel, he does his standard awkward guy schtick to decent effect and a couple of laughs, and Speedman and Hampshire are solid but forgettable in their mostly one-note roles. And indie music fans take note: A Silver Mount Zion contribute some tunes to the score as do Franco rockers Malajube.
“Good Neighbours” is in many ways the perfect example of a Canadian production. Just above a made-for-TV production, quiet and underachieving, like the referendum that features in the film, it mostly feels like an outdated notion. [D]
“Good Neighbours” opens in Canada on June 3rd and in the U.S. on July 29th.