Ellis Reed takes a look at Julius Berg's feature-length debut, The Owners, starring Maisie Williams and Sylvester McCoy...
After a solid festival run, The Owners (UK, Julius Berg, 2020) is coming to digital on 22 February, with a physical release to follow on 1 March.
The film is a tense house-bound thriller, loosely adapted from the Belgian graphic novel Une Nuit de Pleine Lune (Hermann and Yves H, 2011). Mary (Maisie Williams) is a reluctant petty criminal, embroiled in her boyfriend’s housebreaking caper. Homeowner Richard (Sylvester McCoy) is a wealthy doctor with impeccable manners – almost inhumanly so – and a sinister side that slowly reveals itself. Also present are Mary’s boyfriend Nathan (Ian Kenny), perennial loser Terry (Andrew Ellis), long-haired psychopath Gaz (Jake Curran), and Richard’s ailing wife Ellen (Rita Tushingham).
As a home invasion with the tables turned, The Owners is bound to invite comparisons with Don’t Breathe (USA, Fede Alvarez, 2016). The good news is that the similarities are quite superficial, and, more importantly, The Owners is a solid offering in its own right. In this case, the burglars know that there’s a safe at the house because Terry’s mum is the cleaner. Sadly, after they get inside the property, they find that they can’t open it. When the owners return mid-heist, Gaz escalates the situation, relishing an opportunity to menace them into compliance.
Once the stakes are raised, the first act is great at building tension. Curran does a very solid turn as Gaz, who’s clearly a cut above his peers in terms of villainy. Compared to him, the rest of the gang seem like bored amateurs; we suspect that without him on board, they would have given up and gone home before the owners discovered them (especially since Mary has limited patience from the get-go). Gaz shows a much bigger appetite for conflict, which makes the setup feel like a powder keg.
The return of the owners, too, really dials up the tension. This is an area where the film differs greatly from the source material; in Une Nuit de Plein Lune, the owner of the house is an ex-soldier, making him a credible match for the burglars. For The Owners, Berg and co-writer Mathieu Gompel went in a very different direction. ‘With energetic young robbers,’ Berg has said, ‘we wanted to build exact opposite figures: an old couple still in love, very fragile physically, but smarter like chess players.’(1) There’s something ‘off’ about the resulting pair, and not just because Ellen has dementia. Richard is a little too calm and collected, and we can’t help but wonder what he’s got up his sleeve.
The film begins to feel like a coiled spring, and we don’t know quite which way it will go. This is crucial for holding interest. Is Richard a retired hitman? A serial killer? An alien in disguise? A vampire? It’s clear from the trailer that the balance of power will shift, but we don’t know exactly how or why.
When the first act comes to a close, some of the urgency goes out of the film (we need to tip-toe around the spoilers here!) and doesn’t really return till the finale. The middle act is a sort of surreal truce between the owners and their guests, bookended by scenes of drama. During the middle part of the story, our interest is held by the dangling threads of mystery, but I did feel (minor criticism) that it could have been a bit briefer. The final act serves up some gleefully violent and trippy excess, with a truly chilling flourish at the end. There’s also a late change of aspect ratio, intended to create a feeling of claustrophobia. This might seem gimmicky to some viewers, but for my money, it worked.
The acting is uniformly strong, but man-of-the-match goes to McCoy. Even Doctor Who fans will find him creepy in the role of Richard. From the start, his manner is so calm and reasonable that it puts him in a sort of uncanny valley, where it’s hard to put your finger on what’s wrong, but something definitely isn’t right. Berg credits McCoy with the ability to ‘build this weird energy inside of him which can suggest the perversity of his character.’ The Owners isn’t his first foray into horror – genre fans could take a gamble on Slumber (UK and USA, Jonathan Hopkins, 2017), which I honestly think is underrated(2) – but it’s surely his most successful. In fact, his turn as Richard won the Total Film Award for Best Actor at FrightFest, which is very well deserved.(3)
Rita Tushingham also does a good villain. Her portrayal of dementia covers a broad spectrum, from vulnerable child to cackling witch. Jake Curran is compelling as a different, much more realistic kind of antagonist, who gets to deliver a brilliant (albeit brief) monologue during the first act.
Of course, Maisie Williams gets top billing, following her tenure as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones (USA, HBO, 2011-2019). In the first act, she does an excellent job conveying her complete lack of interest in the heist, as well as her general impatience with her male colleagues. If it sounds like I’m damning her with faint praise, I don’t mean to; the performance hints at a deeper weltschmerz, a lived reality, rather than a simple lack of enthusiasm. She even had some influence on Mary’s story, inspiring Berg and Gompel to re-think a key scene for her character.(4) Berg credits her with ‘enough intensity to avoid the archetypal figure of the female passive victim in this kind of movie,’ and it’s a role that could have seemed one-dimensional with a less nuanced delivery.
To sum up, The Owners is definitely worth a look for horror fans. The heist-gone-wrong isn’t a new concept, but the film is distinguished by good production and great performances, and it should certainly hold your interest and leave you with a chill. Definitely check it out when it comes to streaming on Monday!