Take Aaron Harvey’s film The Neighbour, for example. Its premise is simple, but universal; it features a potentially award-worthy central performance from one of America’s finest but least recognised talents (and the rest of the cast is pretty good too), it forgoes that most oft-trod route of throwing fireworks where a slow-burn is more suitable, it’s beautifully shot in a sort of carefully controlled Michael Mann / David Fincher style, and its resolution is appropriate to both characters and plot, rather than being dynamic for gratification’s sake. It has all the elements in place to make a really satisfying psychological thriller.
Yet it doesn’t quite work. And unfortunately, the reason it doesn’t quite work is the very thing that makes it so distinctive and almost fulfilling.
William Fichtner, who’s been gracing our screens since the late 1980s, and yet never seems to have achieved the profile or level of acclaim he almost certainly deserves, plays Mike, a middle-aged technical writer drifting in a marriage of routine, and whose world suddenly regains some colour when a newly wed young couple move in next door. But before long, Mike starts hearing evidence that his new neighbours’ relationship might be physical in all the wrong ways, and when he befriends Jenna (McNamee), the carefully maintained glue that holds his life together begins to become unstuck.
As someone who writes the text for instruction manuals, Fichtner brilliantly portrays the quiet solitude of a lifetime without creativity or variety; he’s totally believable as the stiff and awkward man who teeters ambiguously on the brink between empathy and voyeurism – equal parts creepy and sympathetic – and The Neighbour never really confirms either way. That’s a brave and potentially interesting direction to take, but it’s also a decision that undermines the film’s effectiveness. Because this is a story that unravels so painfully slowly, and keeps its protagonist at just enough of a remove from the viewer, that what should be a gradual incrementation of tension instead veers perilously close to being boring.
Which is a real shame, as each of the individual elements is so very finely judged as not to be an issue in itself. The relationship between Mike and Lisa (Kelly) feels authentic in a slightly awkward but nevertheless repetitiously loving way, enough so that when it slips, the cracks that caused it to do so feel realistically apparent. And the neighbours are equally credible, Scott (Rosenbaum) rather boorish but not overstatedly so, and Jenna dutiful without being submissive. The characters all feel real, in other words.
The Neighbour, then, is just about absorbing enough to hold your attention until its powerful but bleak finale. But only just.
THE NEIGHBOUR / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: AARON HARVEY / SCREENPLAY: RICHARD BYARD, AARON HARVEY / STARRING: WILLIAM FICHTNER, JESSICA McNAMEE, JEAN LOUISA KELLY, MICHAEL ROSENBAUM, COLIN WOODELL, ERICH ANDERSON / RELEASE DATE: 5TH NOVEMBER