“Don’t measure your neighbour’s honesty by your own,” reads the ‘American proverb’ that opens Marcus Dunstan’s third feature after The Collector (2009) and its sequel The Collection (2012). Which is to say that The Neighbour begins with a suggestion not only that one is always being compared (if not always positively) with one’s neighbour, but also that this is to be a tale rooted in the traditions and legacies of the United States. There follows an oversaturated and impressionistically edited montage of images beneath the title credits, in which changed licence plates and cars raced along country roads by blood-soaked drivers are intermixed with papier mâché masks and women bound-and-gagged. If it is hard to perceive a singular narrative in this disorienting progression of visuals, that is because we are in fact glimpsing two separate yet parallel – neighbouring even – stories that the rest of the film will tease both out and apart.
We begin with John (Josh Stewart, The Collection), a veteran of the Middle East conflict now living with his girlfriend Rosie (Alex Essoe, Starry Eyes) in rural Cutter, Mississippi. Together they keep a remote safe house where drug runners can stop in, get cleaned up, and leave their goods and bags of cash. All this is done for John’s emphysemic uncle Neil (Skipp Sudduth), a violent local kingpin who is best not crossed – and yet John and Rosie are planning to skip town just as soon as they have put enough money together to break free of Neil’s far-reaching grip. It is a dangerous situation, as the lovers find themselves captives to the criminality which surrounds them and in which they have become complicit.
This, however, is not just John and Rosie’s story, but also that of their neighbour Troy (Bill Engvall), a farmer and hunter who, like John, dreams of getting out, and is, with his sons Harley (Ronnie Gene Blevins) and Cooper (Luke Edwards), is executing a plan that the three of them hope will lift them out of their own poverty trap. If Rosie keeps a close eye on her neighbours with a telescope mounted by the window, it turns out that Troy has one of his own trained right back at them. It is just one of many symmetries between these two households, each engaged in clandestine activities and wary of intruders. “We all got our secrets,” Troy tells John. “You do what you do, I do what I do. That’s why we live out in these parts: don’t want to be bothered by others.” Whatever Troy’s secret may be, he is not, as John observes, a tweaker, because “his aim’s too good.”
The Neighbour conforms to the story pattern first established by Psycho (1960), and then followed by films as varied as From Dusk Til Dawn (1996), Dead Birds (2004) and Malevolence (2005), wherein people whose crimes are the focus of the opening act then fall into the clutches of others committing worse crimes – except what makes The Neighbour different is the parity that Dunstan and his regular co-writer Patrick Melton establish, at least up to a point, between the two sets of wrongdoers. Both do bad things, and both are trapped and striving to escape the bonds of their social milieu. As such, their predicaments are also those of America’s ever-expanding underclass, prisoners to debt, destitution and desperation, ill-served by corrupt authorities, and pitted against one another by circumstance – until, that is, the cat-and-mouse, the hammers, knives and guns, the dungeon horror and bludgeoning revenge all kick in, and genre has its merry way. From there on, The Neighbour offers a collection of tense, increasingly improbable thrills, accompanied by uncomfortable moral alignments in a world where everyone is marginalised and nobody can afford to obey the law.
© Anton Bitel