With unexpected twists, empathetic characters, and an unshakable darkness, this is one of the most suspenseful films of the year.
The Ones Below (TIFF Review)
In cinema, it seems almost impossible to raise the stakes any higher than by putting an infant child in a dangerous situation. Many have argued that this is a cheap trope that is exploited to create suspense and elicit an emotional response from audiences. While that criticism may very well be true in some cases, there is nothing cheap about David Farr’s startling directorial debut The Ones Below.
After a decade-long relationship, Kate (Clémence Poésy) and her husband Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) get pregnant with their first child. Shortly thereafter, new neighbors move in to the flat below them. Jon (David Morrissey) and Theresa (Laura Birn), another married couple expecting their first child, immediately express their desire to befriend the somewhat hesitant Kate and Justin. In typical psychological thriller fashion, a series of traumatic events follow. Kate grows increasingly paranoid, convinced that Jon and Theresa have sinister plans. Of course, Jon thinks his wife is delusional and overreacting. Fearing for the wellbeing of her newborn son, Kate becomes determined to uncover the truth about the couple below before it’s too late.
Longtime film fans will quickly notice an apparent Polanski influence, as the film is Rosemary’s Baby meets Carnage, with a healthy does of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle thrown in for good measure. Farr never pulls his punches, resulting in an emotionally draining film that remains equally woeful and unsettling. When it’s not tugging at the heartstrings with sequences of bleakness and family drama, it’s creeping under the skin with some genuinely suspenseful moments that feel anything but safe. There’s a legitimate sense of danger throughout that gives The Ones Below a truly alluring nature.
It doesn’t avoid the cliché moments that are found in similar movies, but Farr manages to keep suspense high regardless. Even the wildly cliché moment where the unsuspecting mother hears a frightening noise through the baby monitor is crafted with severe tension. Once Kate determines that there’s something horrifyingly wrong with the downstairs couple, she breaks into their home and discovers loads of incriminating evidence of their ulterior motives. Of course, it is all quickly hidden before her husband manages to see it—making Kate appear as though she is completely losing her mind. We’ve all seen these exact scenes time and time again in film—yet Farr has a way of making them not only feel fresh but also strangely unpredictable and tense.
A haunting, eerie score sets the stage for Kate’s crippling descent into madness. From there, Farr questions if Jon and Theresa are completely innocent and Kate is just a paranoid woman who is having difficulty entering into motherhood. Normally, this would come across as a red herring, but The Ones Below is such a daring, intelligently crafted film that it feels completely possible for all expectations to be violently subverted.
Set in the United Kingdom, there’s a classic England feel to The Ones Below in more ways than one. From the atmospheric, often dreary setting, to the overt classiness of the characters, there’s an almost sophisticated aura. Effective cinematography, with an excellent use of zooms, is perhaps the biggest technical highlight of the film. Director of photography Ed Rutherford (A Long Way from Home) truly rises to the occasion.
Farr’s debut is impressive, delivering everything that one would desire out of a modern thriller. Complete with multiple unexpected twists, empathetic characters, and an unshakable darkness, The Ones Below is one of the most suspenseful films of the year—and one that shouldn’t be missed by fans of the genre.