David Farr’s “The Ones Below” works off of a handful of intriguing ideas, including “what’s more terrifying than being pregnant?” and “who the hell are my neighbors?” and “what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen at a dinner party?” and fits them inside a lean, mean little 90-minute package that borrows generously from scads of other, better psychological dramas that have come before it. Aided by strong, grounded performances by Clémence Poésy and Stephen Campbell Moore, the film is at its best when it’s not trying to ape and imitate other genre offerings, instead layering drama in alongside the kind of thrills and chills that Farr seemingly utilizes in order to give the film some kind of horror cred.
“The Ones Below” plays up claustrophobia and confusion in its first act, introducing clever ideas (including the lingering sense that our own tortured protagonists have secrets to spare) and a deep sense of unease, all of which ultimately fall off as the film winds on. Mostly set inside and around a two-story North London flat, the film follows long-time couple Kate (Poésy) and Justin (Moore) as they prepare for the arrival of their first child. Farr’s script doesn’t pile on hackneyed character details, instead steadily making it clear through strong writing and good performances why Kate’s pregnancy took so long and how she (and Justin) really feel about it. Cautiously happy, the pair’s mood is boosted by the arrival of new downstairs neighbors, a seeming signal of good things to come.
The downstairs flat – which includes a spacious garden and a sprawling living room, all of which makes Kate and Justin’s cute apartment look like a hovel – has long been empty after the death of its original tenant, so imagine how pleased Kate and Justin are to find a new couple moving on in, all bright paint swatches and neat aesthetic. Now imagine how pleased they are when they discover that said neighbors also happen to be pregnant. For a couple who are a bit trepidatious about what the future holds, the arrival of Jon (David Morrissey) and Theresa (Laura Birn) initially looks like a tremendous blessing. Not so fast.
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Theresa and Kate become fast friends, but that relationship doesn’t extend to their hubbies (Jon is a bit of a cold fish, and Justin doesn’t ever take to him) and it’s not strong enough to combat clear differences between the ladies, both when it comes to personal taste and social status. Eager to bond the neighbors, Kate and Justin invite Jon and Theresa over for a dinner so awful that it rivals Roman Polanski’s wild chamber piece “Carnage,” a stilted affair that swiftly devolves into a terrible accident and a major tragedy. As Jon and Theresa retreat to recover from the horrific chain of events that unspooled at the dinner, Kate and Justin try to move forward, eventually welcoming their bouncing baby boy.
Kate, still cautious and a bit scared of motherhood, falls hard and fast for her kiddo, a bond that is tested when Jon and Theresa return after a long period away. Eager to reignite their friendship, Kate and Theresa start spending more time together – time that also includes little baby boy Billy – a move that proves to be disastrous for the fragile Kate. Soon, Kate is acting out in strange ways that impact both Billy and Justin, and it becomes clear that the return of Theresa and Jon has something to do with it (coincidence is not the sort of thing that ever works its way into this particular feature). While Kate is eventually made to feel like she’s totally bonkers (a sentiment that Justin shares without much debate), Farr roots his film alongside her, and it’s obvious from the get-go that Kate isn’t actually nuts and that some outside force is manipulating her.
Although the first act of the film neatly distributes its sense of unease and suspicion amongst its four players, “The Ones Below” eventually abandons that sensibility in order to stay decidedly in Kate’s camp, robbing the film of the majority of its tension and interesting character work. Initially a tricky little thriller that seems intent to ape Polanki’s “Repulsion,” Farr’s choice to make it clear that Kate isn’t actually crazy neuters the majority of the film’s tension, twisting it from psychological thriller to what amounts to little more than a particularly intimate home invasion feature. Despite the maddening decision to excise the best part of the film’s plot – who here is actually crazy and why? – Farr continues to lean heavily on the film’s other genre-specific elements, like a creepy score that twists a lullaby into something slow and sinister and a series of hammy close-ups that feel embarrassingly out of joint.
The plot isn’t the only thing to wear thin, as the dialogue soon takes on a stilted quality that does little to improve the diminishing impact of the film. Poesy is occasionally tasked with delivering thudders like “I’m always watching people,” which she somehow manages to utter without cracking, while Birn has a bit more fun screeching out one-liners like “you don’t deserve that thing inside of you!” which, despite her game delivery, feels out of a place in a film that already doesn’t know what it wants to be anymore. Although Farr layers on the creepy until the last frame of “The Ones Below,” the film’s ultimate reveal is hardly shocking, and that the film spends a gratuitous amount time unspooling it long after it’s clear what has gone down feels indulgent and unearned. It’s a sour way to go out on what could have been a thoroughly spine-tingling thriller from top to bottom.
“The Ones Below” opens in theaters and on demand this Friday, May 27.