The Ones Below sounds like a serious horror film, and though it wants to call itself a thriller, it’s really something without a comfortable genre home… but, it has a bit in common with horror theories.
The story revolves around Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who are expecting a baby. They’re a more or less standard couple, who are fairly well off, and their life is offered up as “that which you can relate to.” The ins and outs of their existence moves along a familiar track.
Their one problem is that they live in a two-story flat, and new people move in downstairs. Thus, the ones below. Jon (David Morrissey) and Teresa (Laura Birn) are said ones below, and they are expecting as well.
As we ease into the film, and the general discomfort of living in a situation where you have to see other people a lot more than you want to, we learn that Kate has some fears about her ability to be a good mother. This is mostly so that Teresa can act shocked at the idea of not living in a constant state of being desperate to become a mother.
At a certain point we get this moment when the two couples are having dinner together, and it is, perhaps, the epitome of that moment when someone you don’t actually know very well says something that leaves you utterly at a loss. It’s a socially awkward moment on steroids, and it’s the sort of thing that leaves you looking around the room purely as a biological instinct. You aren’t sure if you’re looking for an escape route, or something you can use as a weapon, it’s just your automatic response.
This is the movie in a nutshell. Much as trends in horror films attempt to follow the zeitgeist of that which people fear, The Ones Below attempts to put its finger squarely on the unnerving moments that surround exposure to people who are just plain weird. We’ve all had those moments, at a bar, or meeting friends of friends, when the voice in your head chimes in with, “And… I’m out.” But, what if you can’t be out?
Things progress, of course, and as we move along the film forces us to continually reevaluate just how weird these people are, but for much of the film we are walking along with the initial stages of something like Fatal Attraction. Indeed, this one is such a slow boil in developing into “serious acts,” partially in order to make us wonder just how much Kate might be reading too much into things, that you have to wonder just how scared people are of finding themselves in a position of not knowing how to respond.
To nail this point home, one of the film’s best moments comes when Kate attempts to take up the, “Uhh, listen crazy,” mantle to disastrous result. Thus, we lay the foundation for even more reluctance to simply rid ourselves of the crazy. Put together with the fact that the crazy can only go so far away, no matter what you do, there is certainly a palpable tension created by Kate’s frustration.
It doesn’t quite add up to as much as you’d hope though, possibly because it wants to hold everything taught for so long that the run at the end can’t deliver. It may make you squirm in your chair several times, but that isn’t all you need for “thrilling tension,” any more than a bag of cats in a piano shop is suddenly a horror film.
It’s a strange misstep for writer/director David Farr, whose screenplay for Hanna was wonderful. It isn’t quite something to avoid, which would be all too meta, but it’s playing at something meta by managing an entirely different angle at discomfort.