Set in Montréal some fifteen years ago, two very different stories are battling it out for space on the front page as Good Neighbors first opens. One is the referendum for Québec to separate from the rest of Canada, sparking more than a little bit of tension between some of its native French speakers and the English-speaking folks who've wafted in from other provinces. The other headline that's starting to creep in more and more revolves around a series of rapes and murders in their neck of the woods. It's a story that's particularly gripped Spencer (Scott Speedman) and Louise (Emily Hampshire), seemingly the only thing these two neighbors bother to talk to each other about. The gossipy landlady is convinced some sort of sparks are going to fly between those two -- after all, they're kind of friends, they're both good looking, and they're both available -- but whenever Spencer halfway starts to make a move, Louise is already out the door. When awkward, gangly newcomer Victor (Jay Baruchel) sets up shop in the building, he worms his way into whatever little circle the two of them have going.
...and, at this point, the question that's obviously running through your mind is "okay" -- pause for a beat with a sigh -- "so which one of them is the killer?" That's the thing, though; Good Neighbors isn't a whodunnit. There are no cat-and-mouse games. No one's cowering in a closet with a butcher knife while some lunatic slowly stalks his way through an apartment. There's no blood-soaked, third-act monologue. There's no montage of all the clues from earlier in the flick that you're supposed to have already pieced together. Part of me thinks the marketing for Good Neighbors, misleading though it may be, is perfect since it does lull you into such a false sense of security. Rather than slog through the same standard issue thriller tropes we've all seen a couple hundred thousand times, Good Neighbors has the confidence and brilliant craftsmanship to be a completely different sort of film altogether. The underlying mystery doesn't revolve around what happened but what will happen. Every thriller is obligated to have at least one "gotcha!" moment to completely catch the audience offguard. What'd be the "gotcha!" in any other movie comes much earlier than normal and isn't punctuated with the usual blaring bombast in the score, treated instead as just another brushstroke in a greater picture that gradually starts to take shape.
Part of what I love so much about Good Neighbors is that it doesn't announce what it is, exactly. There's no formula to speak of: just three neighbors who are all likeable, all kind of charming in their own way, yet all have something uncomfortably off about them that makes you cringe and take a step back. Louise loves to talk as long as it's about something she's interested in; otherwise, she'd just as soon walk away from you mid-sentence to have long, rambling conversations with her cats. The new neighbor Victor is earnest and hopelessly awkward...nerdy in a very endearing way. It's just that he's crushing on Louise so hard that he starts telling everyone in earshot that they're engaged, and that'd be news to her since the two of 'em haven't even gone on a proper date. Spencer is pretty much impossible to read, prone to seething out jagged, harsh barbs but then flashing a million dollar smile. Is it lingering bitterness from grief and being trapped in a wheelchair, or is that just his sense of humor? It's never really clear, and it keeps Victor in particular off-balance. The three of them are so fascinating -- richly drawn yet remaining just out of arm's reach -- that Good Neighbors is consistently engaging even without the usual thriller beats in the plot. It just feels like a really terrific character piece for a while there, with some lingering tension that this will all clearly come to a head at some point.
The construction of the movie is flawless. No detail is inconsequential, and writer/director Jacob Tierney weaves it all together so brilliantly that everything you've seen and heard remains etched in your mind. He doesn't need to resort to flashes from earlier in the film to remind you what the clues were. He doesn't need to bother with monologues or heavy-handed exposition. Gifted storytellers have no use for those sorts of crutches. The whodunnit? element is basically a means to an end. After all, serial killers and rapists are routine, and Tierney wants to give you something you haven't seen before. Good Neighbors takes that in a direction that makes perfect sense in the context of who these people are, and it's something so inspired and so fucked-up that you'll never see it coming. Even then, the movie keeps building and building on top of that, staying intelligent and respectful all the way but always steering clear of whatever it is you might be expecting. Like the best works of noir, there are no heroes. There are no villains. Most everyone is instead a darker shade of gray in between, and wait'll you see how the film wrangles in its femme fatale. I also love the fact that the city of Montréal is as integral a character in Good Neighbors as the state of Texas is in Blood Simple. Shifting the setting any place else would make for an unrecognizably different movie.
Honestly, I can't point to any missteps or mistakes anywhere along the way. Good Neighbors is brilliant: cleverly constructed, perfectly performed, and fiercely original. It's a film that swooped in so far under the radar...a movie that I really wasn't expecting all that much out of...and yet I'm certain it's going to rank near the top of my year-end best list. An essential discovery on Blu-ray: Highly Recommended.
Good Neighbors generally looks nice enough on Blu-ray, particularly whenever the camera has plenty of light to play with. A good bit of the film is shot in underlit apartments, though, and these sequences see contrast flattening out and shadow detail fading away. Clarity and fine detail are instantly recognizable as high definition throughout, and the saturation of its colors is often punchier than more formulaic thrillers are willing to allow. Visually breaking away from convention like that is a greatly appreciated change of pace. I did notice some moire effects and other distortion in a handful of patterns, but that's not at all a persistent nuisance. Not reference quality, no, but a very nice looking Blu-ray disc just the same.
Though this Blu-ray release of Good Neighbors played without any concerns on my standalone Blu-ray decks, the BD-ROM drive in my computer decided not to recognize the disc, so I'm not able to post any screengrabs this time around. Good Neighbors is presented on Blu-ray at its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1, and its AVC encode, lossless soundtrack, and tiny handful of extras all fit onto a BD-25 disc.
As Good Neighbors shies away from the usual thriller theatrics, its 24-bit, DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack tends to be rather subdued as well. The emphasis is placed very much on its dialogue, and every line throughout is rendered cleanly and clearly. The surround channels are reserved predominantly for atmosphere: cars zipping around in the background, the howl of a bitter winter wind, and some haunting reverb. The sound design smirkingly plays with the idea of being more of an overt thriller early on, unleashing startlingly jarring jolts and a thunderous snarl from the subwoofer. Bass response remains robust when appropriate, but those sorts of sonic assaults ease up once the film really gets underway. It's overall a very effective soundtrack that wonderfully complements the tone of the film.
There are no dubs, audio commentaries, or alternate mixes. Subtitles are limited to English (SDH) and Spanish. Not surprisingly, considering its Quebécois setting, there is some French dialogue, and owners of constant image height projection rigs can take comfort in knowing that the English subtitles are rendered in the image proper rather than in the letterboxing bars.
The Final Word
Regardless of what the poster art may lead you to expect, Good Neighbors shrugs off virtually every last one of the usual thriller conventions, choosing instead to draw more deeply from classic noir. It's very much a character piece, swirling around three deeply flawed and equally deeply fascinating people. Yes, there is a serial killer, and backstabbing and manipulation are in no short supply. No matter what you're envisioning, though, Good Neighbors is a hell of a lot more clever and far more disturbing than that. There are no cat-and-mouse chases, and the whodunnit element you might expect is largely tossed aside. It draws tension from seemingly mundane encounters in everyday apartment life...about how a handful of likeable but somewhat off neighbors systematically destroy each other and themselves as they chase their compulsive urges. I desperately want to say so much more than that about Good Neighbors, but this really is one of those films where the less you know going in, the more rewarding an experience it will ultimately prove to be. Though the lack of extras comes as a great disappointment, the modest sticker price -- $15.99 on Amazon, as I write this, and that's a good bit less than the DVD too -- more than makes up for it. Reviews elsewhere have been decidedly mixed, I realize, but I found Good Neighbors to be a brilliant film, and it's one I very much recommend discovering on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.