Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood? by David Bax
About a third of the way into Good Neighbors, Jacob Tierney’s new dark comedy/mystery, the lead character, Louise (played by Emily Hampshire) is being questioned by a detective. One of her co-workers has been the latest victim, it seems, of a serial killer that has been active in the film’s place and time of Montreal in 1995. Louise asks the detective, “Should I be concerned for my safety?” He replies, “A woman your age should always be concerned for her safety.”
Therein lies both the thematic and the dramatic center of Tierney’s story. Louise is a twenty-something single woman, living alone in an apartment with her cats. Meanwhile, women who fit her physical description are being raped and murdered near where she lives. Or is it that they’re being murdered, then raped? The existence of that exact conversation within the film, and the nonchalance with which it is broached, give you an idea of the movie’s tone.
While there exists a difference between a callous movie and a movie about callous people, it’s not a well-defined boundary. Good Neighbors spends time on both sides of that line but mostly in the latter camp, which is when it’s at its best. There’s a specifically urban brand of isolation that happens even when there are people around you all the time, not to mention above and below you in apartment buildings like the one where most of the film takes place. Tierney as both director and writer (adapting Chrystine Brouillet’s novel) mines rich material from the way that such detachment can make people cold and unsympathetic to anyone else’s plight.
The movie is at its worst, though, when it exists on the other side of the aforementioned dividing line. While much of the dark comedy works, there are occasional moments of overreaching. A shot of the serial killer in action, for example, provides no real reason for its existence other than to shock. To be sure, there are some admirably offensive elements at hand and it takes skill to be truly upsetting. But, as a part of a whole, it’s more effective when the distasteful bits stem from character motivation. One of the most outrageous scenes, an extended murder toward the middle of the story, lands all the more sickeningly because of how much sense it makes.
Really, this is a tale of modern day survival. Louise has two male neighbors. One is a wheelchair-bound cynic played by Scott Speedman. The other is an awkward romantic played by Jay Baruchel. Allow me to take a moment to pause and state that the performances from the three leads are resolutely solid. Louise as a human is a member of a social species. And as a woman, she is a member of a vulnerable and victimized group. The people with whom she aligns herself will be the deciding factor in her long-term survival. Good Neighbors is a film about she reaches these decisions and the actions she takes to make them reachable.
Jacob Tierney, in his third feature film, is admirably adept at telling a story, and a story with a point, at that. He could use a more distinctive stylistic voice but we, like Louise, will have to make the best of the options we have. Good Neighbors is better than most.