Television director Julius Berg’s feature debut The Owners begins first with gentle birdsong over the opening credits, and then with a slow pan across the calming English countryside – only for this idyll to be broken as DP David Ungaro’s camera settles on a red car parked in the field whose occupants are smoking up and listening to hip hop. These three young men – locals Nathan (Ian Kenny) and Terry (Andrew Ellis, This is England, 2006), and outsider Gaz (Jake Curran) – are casing a large home with intent to burgle. They are soon joined by Nathan’s girlfriend Mary (Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones), who wants her car back for work – and as the sweet old couple who own the house, village doctor Richard Huggins (Sylvester McCoy, Doctor Who) and his dotty wife Ellen (Rita Tushingham, Straight on Till Morning, 1972), head off for their weekly pub dinner, sociopathic thug Gaz helps his inexperienced crew break in and break bad, while Mary reluctantly keeps lookout. Their goal is to empty the Hugginses’ safe, and when it proves too difficult to crack, they decide to change tack and await the return of the Hugginses in order to wrest the combination directly from them. Inevitably things will not go as planned.
Horror has a long tradition of showing people breaking into a house with criminal intent, only to get more than they bargain for. Films like Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs (1991), Mike Mendez’s Killers (1996), Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008), Marcus Dunstan’s Tbe Collector (2009), Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s Livid (2011), Adam Schindler’s Intruders (aka Shut In, 2015), Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe (2016), Dean Devlin’s Bad Samaritan (2018), Abiel Bruhn and John Rocco’s The Night Sitter (2018) and Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s Villains (2019) all show the tables being turned on would-be home invaders who are confronted with something more manic and malicious than themselves. The Owners fits right into this tradition, and while genre-savvy viewers will know that a twist is coming, Berg keeps us guessing as to precisely which form it will take. In the meantime, the film plays out various tensions in a clash between different classes and generations. The burglars’ poverty, and their outspoken contempt for ‘rich cunts’, bring an obvious social dimension to the proceedings, while Richard’s old-world gentility and Ellen’s senile dementia mark the gulf in age between them and their tearaway captors. These themes come with an allegorical resonance in a nation where homeowners tend to belong to an older generation, while young people are increasingly forced to keep living in their parents’ house.
From its casting to its location, The Owners comes across as a quintessentially English confection, which is ironic given that it has been adapted by Berg, Mathieu Gompel and Geoff Cox from a French graphic novel (Yves H and Hermann’s Une nuit de pleine lune, 2011). Getting down to its burglary business quickly, the film moves along at a pace, before going full crazy in its third act. Nathan’s not very well thought out plan is to skip town with his ill-gotten gains, to escape his life of unemployment and impecunity, and to start a new family elsewhere with Mary, whereas the Hugginses want very much to stay put and maintain their base. In their different ways, though, all the characters here want to take for keeps what is not their own – and some are better practised at achieving this than others. The result is a violent, messy clusterfuck of rural rapacity and hellish homemaking, where crime does not pay, and where sometimes it is best, after all, not to know what is going on behind closed doors.
© Anton Bitel