David Farr’s The Ones Below is a throwback to a predominantly 1990s-era subgenre of thriller that followed an often misleadingly subservient outsider as they insinuated themselves into a prosperous family, enviously turning a domestic unit against itself. The films often pivoted on what used to be called a “[blank] from hell” scenario, as in “nanny from hell” (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle) or “temp from hell” (The Temp), to name just a few. If one wishes to re-adopt this parlance, The Ones Below concerns “flat-mates from hell,” who mercilessly turn a woman’s fear of losing her newborn child against her.
Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) are the ideal patsies for this sort of thriller: privileged, attractive, and almost nauseatingly satisfied with their lives. Justin has a vaguely defined job that appears to be challenging and lucrative, while Kate’s expecting their first child. Kate does have unresolved feelings with her mother, Tessa (Deborah Findlay), a detail that’s clearly established for the sake of a twist, but even the lucky in life can’t have everything. Kate and Justin do, however, appear to have a little more than their new downstairs neighbors, Jon (David Morrissey) and Theresa (Laura Birn), another good-looking and affluent couple who are also expecting after years of trying, and who resent Kate and Justin’s comparatively easy pregnancy with instant and unnerving obviousness. This tension reaches a boiling point when Jon and Theresa lose their child over an elaborate confluence of accidents that could be loosely blamed on Kate and Justin.
Farr establishes the hostilities existing within the film’s quartet of characters with quiet confidence, as he exhibits one of the great and under-valued qualities of a thriller director: patience. Farr allows the situation between Kate, Justin, Jon, and Tessa to breathe, luxuriating in awkward silences, profane eruptions, paranoid hiding and seeking, and unseemly flirtations as they bubble up in the chic, posh, and subtly stifling habitats of the two flats. The filmmaker understands that the possibility of chaos is scarier than chaos itself, as the latter provides the audience a reassuring catharsis no matter how awful it may be. The scariest moments in The Ones Below cleverly exploit quotidian inconveniences, most notably a car alarm that’s incessantly set off, waking Kate, Justin, and their newborn child.
The narrative has gaping and flabbergasting deficiencies of logic, such as Kate allowing Theresa to babysit her child after the latter called her a “cunt,” telling her that she “doesn’t deserve that thing growing inside of her.” But even these lapses inform The Ones Below with a free-associative sense of portent, evoking the stupid things we inexplicably do in our most personal nightmares. And this surreal impression of doom is un-lanced by the anticlimactic ending, in which seeds of destruction bloom with chilling inevitability.