Apartment buildings are naturally creepy places. The cinematic evidence is plentiful and compelling and was around long before writer/director Jacob Tierney began work on “Good Neighbors,” his new Montreal-set thriller. From “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Repulsion” to “Wait Until Dark” and “Rear Window,” movies have long played with our urban anxieties. Whether it’s the witches upstairs, the criminals next door or the demonic behavior of our own walls these cramped and crowded city spaces are a perfect place to set a creepy tale of murder and deceit.
Impressively, “Good Neighbors” doesn’t simply sit in the shadow of the many brilliant apartment thrillers that have come before. Its wintry feel and bitter air set it apart from its forebears even as it strikes to the very core of why these dwellings put us so ill at ease. Set in the frozen months of 1995, three young residents of Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace neighborhood become hesitant friends. Yet, in the context of the increasingly intense battle over Quebec’s sovereignty and the news reports of a serial killer on the loose, the tenuous relationships between these nervous and addled characters begin to crack open. Tierney takes full advantage of his layered setting to tell this story and to keep us on our toes for the duration.
The most obvious reason to shoot a suspense film in an apartment building is cinematographic. Hitchcock understood this when he made “Rear Window,” brilliantly utilizing the vantage points one can frame from inside and around these housing complexes. The heavy buildings of Montréal are particularly suited for this sort of thing due to the thick doors and weighty presence of architecture suited to inordinately cold winters. Tierney watches Louise (a haunting Emily Hampshire) leaning out her window to watch her two cats scurry up and down the fire escape, darting from window to window and lending a strange feline aura to the stacked living spaces. The building itself is a character, with a moody and intimidating exterior to complement its intimately frightening interior spaces.
There’s also a heightened proximity in apartment living that tosses people together unexpectedly. “Good Neighbors” builds from the awkwardness of living so close to strangers and creates intimate relationships that seem to be little more than the result of gravitational pull. Victor (Jay Baruchel) is in love with Louise, who seems initially uninterested but also unable to get rid of him due to their neighboring apartments. Louise and the wheelchair-bound Spencer (Scott Speedman) have little in common other than their bad tempers and the stairwell they share. Characters are always bumping into each other, often suddenly and at high speeds; at one point Victor and Louise crash into one another running into the vestibule which throws them both into temporary chaos.
Yet that closeness is compounded by the strong borders we set up between ourselves and our neighbors. The root of apartment anxiety is that despite living literally on top of one another we usually know very little about our neighbors. Tierney frames this disquiet excellently by posing the essential question at the core of the film’s narrative: “How well do you really know your neighbors?” The implication fairly early on is that one of our three young protagonists is the serial killer that has been plaguing the city in recent months.
More than that, however, the entire atmosphere of the film is one of deception and wariness. The secret lives and dark places in the minds of Victor, Louise and Spencer sit lurking on the edge of the screen, occasionally making a brief appearance before rushing back into the obscure corners of the apartment building. All three are Anglophone, yet Spencer has a surprising confrontational air when it’s assumed he is in favor of Quebec remaining a part of federal Canada. Louise has an increasingly unsettling relationship with her cats, escalated by her conflict with her shrill neighbor upstairs (a hilariously profane Anne-Marie Cadieux). Victor has just returned from a year abroad in China and is an entirely known variable. Any or all of these characters could be hiding something sinister.
All of this adds up to the most effectively unsettling thriller of the year so far. The eventual climax creeps up much more gradually than can be gleaned from the film’s US trailer. Slowly driving the tension further and further into the dead of winter, Tierney guides his trio of awkward and mysterious young characters towards a climax that is impressively taut even if you see it coming. In the spirit of Polanski and Hitchcock, it’s a thriller with a hauntingly Northern vibe that proves yet again that moving to the suburbs might not be that terrible an idea after all.
“Good Neighbours” opens Friday in limited release.
Recommended If You Like: “Rosemary’s Baby”; “Rear Window”; “The Wild Hunt”