There is a scene in the new movie The Ones Below which genuinely blew me away. It feels so raw and primal, I honestly couldn’t stop thinking about it after watching the movie. It actually made me feel bad for the actor because of what he had to put himself through to get to that moment on screen. But it’s also a moment that is so “cinematic” within this psychological thriller, both shocking and ultimately completely logical, I love the fact that the movie went as far as it goes. I always respect movies that go a little further than you think they could or would, especially the pulpy pieces of entertainment that still add bigger ideas to chew on during, and consider after the lights come back up.
And while the single sequence might have made me recommend the movie, the fact that it is the culmination of everything that has come before is why this is a great movie worth seeking out. The movie stars out with the typical, modern day London couple, Justin and Kate (Stephen Campbell Moore and Clémence Poésy). Together for 10 years, they just recently decided to have a child and are expecting their first. An affectionate couple but are also reserved and casual in their day to day life, they are unexpectedly open with each other about their anxieties about having a child…especially Kate. They live with their cat in the cozy upstairs apartment of a duplex, the kind that’s always a little disheveled but never a mess.
Then they meet their new downstairs neighbors; the unsettling, superficial embodiment of Mr. and Mrs. Perfect; like the Technicolor version of a Donna Reed family. They’re David Morrissey’s Jon (an actor who just keeps freaking me out) seems to own more colorful sweaters than Ralph Lauren, and his elegant wife Teresa (Laura Birn), who seems to be as “perfect” as a Stepford Wife. Also pregnant, their apartment’s immaculate and their yard as unsettlingly manicured as the suburban houses of Edward Scissorhands. While Justin and Kate live their life without any certainty about their lives (there are some very touching scenes of them asking for reassurances), Jon and Teresa’s confident certainty about everything in their life, marriage, and family give Kate, and the audience, the chill of cold water hitting your back. The dichotomy of the two couples creates tension long before the movie becomes a thriller, turning the great “shoes on-or-off” debate into one of the most intense ongoing conflicts between neighbors.
The fact that this movie can feel creepy because a couple left their shoes in the hall really says something about how good David Farr is at crafting his directorial feature film debut. Farr is an acclaimed playwright and screenwriter (he also wrote the underappreciated Hanna and the mini-series from this year, The Night Manager), but he shows a strong directorial hand here. Essentially a four-hander, the movie avoids becoming a filmed play, but never takes things outside purely to add movement to the film. Farr’s film is slow considering it is a brisk 86 minutes, but he’s made a film that is blissfully tight and elegantly constructed. Farr takes painstaking detail with the color palette of the film. The swirl of extreme style in Jon and Teresa’s world of greens and yellows seem to invade the more naturalistic world of greys and blues Kate and Justin are consumed by. Even Jon and Teresa’s yard seems to exist in a different weather pattern. And that subtle yet surreal quality’s only elevates when the movie moves into its second and third acts.
The movie’s general themes and some plot devices have been addressed before, but rarely done in a film this effectively moody, well written, artfully directed, and universally well-acted by a quartet of superb actors…each given at least one especially memorable scene to leave an impression. Farr has turned out to be a bit of a master of high quality genre screenwriting, and tackles the domestic thriller like an expert; despite its slow and deliberate pacing (and brief 86 minute run time), the film is always completely engrossing. Yes it’s an enjoyable little chiller, but it’s a popcorn film full of smart commentary about urban loneness and parental anxiety we’ve rarely seen on screen. A little gem of a movie, The Ones Below is a flick well worth seeking out for those looking for some thrills this summer.