Star Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
This is simultaneously a review and another entry in my Why It Works/Why It Doesn’t Work series. So it goes without saying: **SPOILERS**
From the previews, The Good Neighbor, looked like it was going to be the 2016 equivalent of the Shia LaBeouf film, Disturbia. It had the creepy neighbor, the mysterious basement, and two kids who are really bored. Instead, The Good Neighbor was a mess of a film that suffered from lack of focus and direction.
The film starts off with Ethan and Sean (played by Logan Miller and Keir Gilchrist), two teens who apparently have nothing better to do so they decide they are going to set up a bunch of hidden cameras in Ethan’s neighbor’s house and try to convince him he his house is haunted using the wonders of modern technology. Through their surveilling the two teens realize there may be something sinister about Mr. Grainey (James Caan) and his mysterious locked basement.
This film had all of the elements to be good, but somewhere those elements were lost in a plot that struggled to maintain its focus. The film starts with some narration from Sean about a social experiment in which a group of people were told there would be several unidentified individuals who would interact with their lives over the course of a week and alter their lives in some way. At the end of the experiment, several of the people had a significantly more positive outlook on life. Some even claimed to have found God. The secret of the experiment was that there were no secret individuals involved. All of this narration is played establishing of the city, in order to orient the viewer with the town, which later has no impact on the story. With that experiment established, the film cuts to a found footage style in which the two teens are explaining in detail their experiment. They want to convince Ethan’s creepy neighbor, that he is being haunted. The film then continues to explain how they are going to do what they’re going to do, and why, all through the magic of a handheld camera. The two teens then break into Mr. Grainey’s house while he is away and plant their cameras and other tech devices to create the “haunting.” The film then cuts to a courtroom, where someone is on trial as a result of the experiment. As the film progresses, these courtroom scenes are added in to fill in some of the gaps of what happened because there are things Ethan and Sean aren’t able to see with their handicam point of view.
Herein lies the biggest problem with the film. The film establishes from the beginning that Ethan and Sean are supposed to be our eyes and ears into this story that is unfolding. They have their personal camera to document everything, and then they have their hidden cameras to film everything in the house. By introducing a courtroom, the film introduces another point of view, which helps to film to fill in blanks for the viewer, but it eliminates potential mystery of what might happen (even if the film hides who is on trial for a majority of the scenes). By adding another point of view, we are less inclined to care about these characters because we no longer see or hear the film through their rational.
During the scenes in which Mr. Grainey is being haunted, the film will also switch from the security camera point of view, to Mr. Grainey’s point of view. The film suddenly takes you out of the grainy (I see what they did there), black and white footage from the hidden camera, to a sharp colorful, first person view of the events transpiring. You and I both know why the lights are flickering or the stereo suddenly turned on, but Mr. Grainey doesn’t. The film wants the viewer to be scared with Mr. Grainey, but it just doesn’t happen. We know there’s no reason to be scared. The film takes the viewer to a deeper level, and we see glimpses into Mr. Grainey’s thoughts during the “hauntings,” and each one is a memory of his wife. At the end of the film we get to see the end result of all of these memories. I believe the reason we were shown these memories during the hauntings was to add another level to Mr. Grainey’s creepiness, but instead it pulled us out of Sean and Ethan’s fear, and gave us another point of view to focus on. It’s as if the film wants to be a mystery/thriller, but it also wants us to emotionally connect with each of the three major parties involved, which is just impossible to do.
The film tries hard to be a thriller. It want’s us to think Mr. Grainey is a cold-blooded killer. At one point he is taking out his trash and it falls over and a dog barks at it and then he yells at the dog. Why? BECAUSE HES A KILLER. HE HAS TO YELL AT ANIMALS LIKE A KILLER DOES! There are several scenes with Sean and Ethan having get togethers and parties at Ethan’s house. Why? BECAUSE THEY’RE TEENAGERS AND TEENAGERS HAVE PARTIES! Halfway through the film, Mr. Grainey’s basement is introduced. We see him go into the basement several times, and we see there is a lock on the door. I’m certain the basement is introduced to give Mr. Grainey another level of creepy, because only serial killers lock their basements. We never see Mr. Grainey take anything into the basement. No large, weirdly people shaped, trash bags, or knives, or cleavers. Nor does he lure unsuspecting women or men down into it. At one point a police officer goes down into the basement because of an “anonymous” tip he received, and he comes out fine. The film uses lazy Let’s Make a Deal tactics to make this basement mysterious. It is only mysterious, because the film has drawn attention to it.
At the end of the film, Mr. Grainey kills himself because each of the hauntings remind him of his wife who died from cancer, and special things he did for her. He can’t bear being without his wife anymore, and in a suspense filled scene with Ethan watching, he kills himself. Sean bursts into the house, and seconds later the same police officer from earlier shows up. The film cuts to the final court room scene where the kids get away with community service, even though the judge emphasizes that there were responsible for Mr. Grainey’s death. The final shot of the film is, in my opinion, the only decent shot in the entire film. It’s Ethan on the steps outside of the courthouse. The camera focuses on him, and frames him with news reporters, which invokes a feeling of loneliness, and isolation. The camera closes in on his face, where we see every ounce of guilt weighing on him because of his involvement with Mr. Grainey’s death. For a second, right before the film cuts to black, a slight smirk might be seen on his face. There is so much open to interpretation in that final shot, that it gives the film at least one redeeming moment.
I think a lot of the focus issues from the film could be fixed if the story started with Mr. Grainey as the point of view character and followed him throughout the story. What we get is an old man who thinks he is being haunted, and trying to deal with that and the emotions of his long dead wife. This provides context for Mr. Grainey’s memories throughout the movie, and this time we’d actually feel sad for him, instead of confused. Halfway through, introduce two punk kids who are bored, and they become the antagonist of the story. Cut out the found footage nonsense, and cut all but the last court room scenes out except for the last one, and keep the final shot, and this could be a decent thriller.