Good Neighbors: Film Review

An agreeably sick little movie about a serial killer, a bunch of cats and the uneasy tenants of a Montreal apartment complex.

Canadian writer-director Jacob Tierney's low-budget thriller is very tongue-in-cheek, a kind of deconstruction of noir atmosphere and its tropes into a meditation on the treachery of the human heart.

A twisted film noir with two or three very sick characters, the exact number dependant on your point of view, Good Neighbors takes supreme advantage of its grim setting — Montreal in the dead of winter. As any native will tell you, winters there can drive a person crazy. Although the film’s writer-director Jacob Tierney makes it pretty clear that the tenants of a multi-story apartment complex in the Notre Dame de Grace area are mentally shaky in the best of times.

Good Neighbors is a film of acquired taste. If one is willing to accept humor in a movie about a serial killer, if one likes a thriller than emphasizes character over thrills, if one is susceptible to a cast of characters that includes three cats, then the movie has found its very selective target audience. The Canadian film will receive solid reviews and modest box-office returns in south of the border play dates, but Good Neighbors heralds a promising although by no means new talent in actor-turned-writer-director Tierney.

The title is, of course, ironic. The surface friendliness of many of the residents of this aging but well appointed apartment building is mostly a façade. So when three of them seemingly hit it off, there is still general awkwardness all around since everyone feels uncomfortable in one another’s company.

Then there is that serial killer, who menaces young women in the neighborhood.

Louise (Emily Hampshire), who works as a waitress in a nearby Chinese restaurant, has become obsessed with the story, scouring Montreal newspapers for any and all stories about each victim. The latest one is a co-worker.

Her wheelchair-bound downstairs neighbor Spencer (Scott Speedman) shares her predilection up to a point. But he mostly likes to keep to himself. Then a new tenant moves in, an elementary school teacher Victor (Jay Baruchel), recently returned to the city from a sojourn in China.

Victor eagerly wants to make friends with the other two. Louise and Spencer reluctantly do so but remain wary of the newcomer. To their way of thinking, he is only a tad more agreeable than the crazy, drunken, foul-mouthed tenant (Anne-Marie Cadieux), who hates Louise’s cats.

As the trio’s relationships develops, it is soon clear each is a troubled character. Louise’s life is oriented more to her felines, Mozart and Tia Maria, than to humans. Indeed you have to go back to the first 10 minutes of Robert Altman’s classic The Long Goodbye to find a movie where cats figure so prominently.

Victor is almost a benign stalker, a little creepy in his keenness to ingratiate himself to the other tenants, especially Louise on whom he clearly has a crush and soon develops an imaginary love life. Oh, yes, he talks to his mirror too, which in certain movies is always a bad sign.

Outwardly Spencer seemsthe best adjusted of the trio despite his handicap. But there is something about his false smile that you instantly distrust. Maybe Spencer is a little too easy-going.

These three live above one another on three separate floors and the walls are paper-thin. In other words, it’s hard to keep secrets in this apartment complex although its manager, Mme Gauthier (veteran actress Micheline Lanctôt), will find herself completely in the dark when a murder takes place in the building itself.

Tierney lets his cameras — and those cats, which expand to three when Victor’s cat from China, Balthazar, rejoins him — prowl all over the building from its lobby, stairway and hallways to the fire escape and snowy frontage on a surprisingly deserted street. The place is eerier than a haunted house.

The tensions within the trio’s insular world and then outside their uneasy circle with a crazy neighbor and vicious killer on the loose mount steadily in Tierney’s well orchestrated script, based on a 1982 novel by Chrystine Brouillet. An American might not immediately realize it, but this is a period piece as the story is set in 1995 when all of Quebec was caught up in the referendum about whether the province should sucede from greater Canada. Thus, signs are everywhere urging citizens to vote Oui or Non, which the filmmaker clearly sees metaphorically as a question each character faces in his or her secret life. This also, as the director makes clear in press notes, puts his story outside the era of DNA and the Internet, which he calls the “death of noir.”

Tierney more or less pulls off his elaborate and clever juggling act of elements macabre and disturbing within the seeming normalcy of domestic cats and friendly neighbors. The whole affair is very tongue-in-cheek, a kind of deconstruction of noir atmosphere and its tropes into a meditation on the treachery of the human heart.

Working on a modest budget and taking advantage of its very limitations, he brings great vitality and ambiance to a paucity of sets and locations. Meanwhile his actors deliver wonderfully ambiguous performances. For this isn’t one of those movies where clarity only comes at the end. You’re aware of the identity of the killer before too long. What keeps you guessing is how everyone will react to what they know, or what think they know, about one another.

None of which Tierney would have accomplished if it weren’t for animal wranglers Josée Juteau and Raymond Ducasse. Who says you can’t train cats?

Opens: July 29 in Los Angeles, New York (Magnolia Pictures)
Production companies: Magnolia Pictures, Myriad Pictures Park Ex Pictures
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Scott Speedman, Emily Hampshire, Valerie Langlois, Micheline Lanctôt, Gary Farmer, Pat Kiely
Director/screenwriter: Jacob Tierney
Based on a novel by: Chrystine Brouillet
Producer: Kevin Tierney
Director of photography: Guy Dufaux
Production designer: Anne Pritchard
Music: Silver Mountain Industries
Costume designer: Francesca Chamberland
Editor: Arthur Tarnowski
Rated R, 98 minutes