2016 has been a great year for twisty-turny thrillers that are more suffocatingly intense than perhaps outright enjoyable – The Invitation, Hush and The Witch being particular ‘highlights’, but topping the list is UK thriller The Ones Below. A puzzle-box of cold revenge designed with precision by writer & director David Farr.
Kate and Justin are a frightfully pleasant upper middle-class couple expecting their first child. Coincidentally in the long-vacant apartment below them, move in another frightfully upper middle-class couple, Teresa and Jon, also expecting their first child. The couple below seem a lot more fretful than Kate and Justin, who are breezing through their pregnancy. Teresa drinks a little more than perhaps she should. Jon is intimidatingly controlling. All comes to a head during the most awkward dinner party, when a tragic accident causes turmoil between the two couples.
I’m not going to reveal any more of the plot. Further prior knowledge will just ruin it. Suffice to say, shit goes well wonky.
Although the above description makes it sound like it might descend into melodrama, The Ones Below is constructed like an incredibly lean thriller, where every working part has a purpose and nothing is extraneous. Its foreshadowing is subtle, its symbolism light of hand, and despite the film hinging on one terrible accident, there is nothing accidental in the making of the film. Where you might perhaps think “hmm, it didn’t tie up that loose end,” suddenly a day later something will click and you’ll realise it did. Seriously, after you’ve watched the film, come talk to me about the ambiguous fate of Kate and Justin’s cat.
For much of its running-time, The Ones Below plays like an Ian McEwan novel, where a well-to-do couple living idyllic lives in West London suddenly become terrifyingly unstuck. Only in The Ones Below, Kate and Justin are played with such charm and sympathy by Clémence Poésy and Stephen Campbell Moore that it’s hard to take any glee in their unravelling.
Similarly, David Morrissey and Laura Birn play the downstairs couple with a quiet, mannered desperation. Their whole existence hangs on the perfect delivery of a child they’ve struggled for years to conceive. It’s hard to peg them as true villains, because their emotional imbalance seems utterly plausible.
Despite its heightened premise, The Ones Below taps into a genuine fear – the chilling randomness of life. How the things most precious to you can be snatched away through any incongruous and unpredictable set of circumstances.
To that end, The Ones Below is possibly the wrong film to watch if you’re having a baby. Or if you’ve just had a baby. Or you have neighbours with a baby. Or are a baby yourself (you won’t understand many of the longer words and some of the language is a bit rude). After watching the film my pregnant wife just looked at me, shook her head in disappointment and didn’t speak to me for the rest of the evening. I deserved it. The film doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to its final reveal.
The Ones Below is ultimately for fans of well-constructed, psychological thrillers, like one of those sensationalist Hollywood thrillers from the 90s (Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Fatal Attraction) but mixed with the grimly black-comic slant of a Roald Dahl short story or a Ruth Rendell novel.
Calculatedly cruel fun.