In dramatic Contrast to the usual vapid monotony that permeates most Canadian films, Good Neighbors is a toxic thriller with unbearable intensity about an odd group of tenants in a small Montreal apartment house in the dead of a Quebec winter. Shades of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant and Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess come to mind as the eerie ambience unfolds around three English-speaking outsiders (called Anglophones) in French-speaking Notre-Dame-de-Grâce in 1995, the year Canada was in the midst of a referendum to decide whether the French province should secede from the nation. In this divisive political landscape, hostile tensions mount, dangers lurk, and to make matters worse, there’s a rapist-serial killer on the prowl, paralyzing Montreal in a vise of terror.
Spencer, played by impossibly handsome Toronto native and heartthrob Scott Speedman, is a moody cripple, confined to a wheelchair after the car crash that killed his wife and left him bitter and reclusive. His only friend is Louise (Emily Hampshire), a pretty waitress in a seedy Chinese restaurant who brings Spencer occasional remnants of the outside world like bottles of scotch and newspapers, but reserves her only affection for two cats that scamper up and down the fire escape, annoying the neighbors. Victor (Jay Baruchel) is the newcomer, a nervous, lonely Jewish schoolteacher with a cat named Balthazar, who moves in on the fourth floor after spending a year in China. Desperate for human contact, he forces his way into his two neighbors’ lives without invitation, but has no idea what a price he will be forced to pay later on. None of them are exactly normal, but there’s something especially unsettling about the smirking Spencer. The first time we see him, he’s feeding smaller fish to the big fish in his tank. Is there a secret behind his sugary smile? Does he make hostile gestures toward Louise’s cats and rude remarks that come out of nowhere because he’s masking his anger and pain? Or does he have a dark side? And then there’s Valerie, a native French-Canadian alcoholic with a nasty temper who poisons Louise’s cats. All of them set the stage for a very unusual thriller filled with graphic violence, sex, blood and sinister mayhem, but which mostly relies on the kind of psychological suspense that comes on stealthy fingers and hides behind the curtains.
In the snowy shadows, a world comes to life that freezes the breath. Overcome with grief and rage, Louise carefully plots a way to destroy Valerie and make it look like the work of the homicidal maniac, framing Victor at the same time, so she can take possession of his cat. The characters go their wicked ways until the inevitable finally happens. On her way up the fire escape from one of the most brutal murder scenes in recent memory, Louise accidentally runs into Spencer, on his way down in his death mask. This is where the gears shift and the plot thickens. Adding tension, Victor sees them both. The rest of this blood-curdling cat-and-mouse game is about the traps they set for each other with multiple solutions that are nothing less than hair-raising.
This third feature by writer-director Jacob Tierney establishes him as one of Canada’s most original and acerbic young filmmakers. Using only the most basic primary set pieces—three apartments connected by a fire escape and the always empty Chinese café—he creates an atmosphere that seems rich and claustrophobic at the same time. From a shocking scene of necrophilia to a vivid throat slashing in the glow of a Christmas tree, Mr. Tierney shocks and provokes but leaves no trace of ennui—and you’ll be amazed how much curdled drama you can get out of the contents of a can of cat food. Some of the imagery overreaches and the climax is something of a letdown, but the excellent performances are perfectly focused and the bleak cinematography by Guy Dufaux, with lighted windows in the lavender night, really makes you feel like you are in the middle of a frozen Montreal winter. Good Neighbors is a hotbed of twisted ideas with a straightforward yet novel approach to the Gothic horror in the hearts of mistakenly everyday people. Stressful and disconcerting but highly recommended, it gave me nightmares.
Running time 98 minutes
Written and directed by Jacob Tierney
Starring Scott Speedman, Jay Baruchel, Emily Hampshire