Few subgenres have as much potential for unique scares as reverse home-invasion thrillers...
...Films such as The People Under the Stairs, Intruders, or Don't Breathe are marketed on their ability to flip the traditional power dynamic of a home invasion on its head. These films empower perceived victims into antagonists, blurring the line of the film’s actual protagonist. The audience knows this flipping of the script will occur; they just don't know how, when, or why. For as darkly demented as The Owners is, getting to those particulars takes some time.
Directed and co-written with Mathieu Gompel by Julius Berg, The Owners follows a group of wannabe gangsters who bite off more than they can chew when a simple burglary escalates into something else entirely.
Maisie Williams stars as Mary, a woman trapped in a dead-end relationship. Her burnout boyfriend Nathan (Ian Kenny) has been talked into another get rich quick scheme by local gangster Gaz (Jake Curran) and their dimwitted friend Terry (Andrew Ellis). The job is straightforward enough: break into an elderly couple's country home and crack their safe. Mary soon finds herself more than just an unwilling participant when the situation escalates into a violent kidnapping.
The group of misfits soon realize they are less in control than they thought.
The Owners isn't shy about letting its audience know there's more to the situation than meets the eye. The narrative's driving focus revolves around uncovering its secrets, which are shrouded in mystery. It begins with elderly couple Ellen (Rita Tushingham) and Dr. Huggins (Sylvester McCoy) being terrorized. These supposed victims seem off, though the viewer initially can't quite put their finger on why.
An uncomfortable atmosphere of violence and purposeful deceit permeates the first act of the film. This makes the audience’s wait for the revelation of characters’ true intentions a nerve-racking affair. Watching this elderly couple’s determination and unwillingness to give up their safe combination, despite the threat of dismemberment, is about as big a red flag as there could be.
The first act is very much a tense standoff between captives and captors, as each side attempts to manipulate the other into submitting to their will. This is primarily fueled by the fantastic duo performance of Sylvester McCoy, Rita Tushingham, and Jake Curran.
McCoy and Tushingham's portrayal of a secretive but seemingly sweet couple drives our investment. They are depicted as being so at odds with the gangsters’ brash and threatening demeanor that you can't help but feel for them—for a while, at least. Considering Maisie Williams' prominence thanks to Game of Thrones, I was surprised at how poorly her character was utilized. She is often reduced to simply reactionary, largely looking past warning signs in favor of living in the moment rather than being proactive.
Jake Curran is a surprising star, especially effective in his dual role as an enforcer and master manipulator; he knows just the right buttons to push to leverage his posse. As the tables begin to turn, however, we learn that words can be deadlier than any weapon.
The film's standoff phase is tensely elevated by Paul Frazer and Vincent Welch's score. It matches every spike and even brief moments of reprieve from tension until the next shocking development presents itself. It complements the film well, fueling a seemingly straightforward situation with fear and uncertainty.
For as strong as The Owners begins, it is slightly undercut by a middle act that becomes bogged down in needless mystery. This discovery phase takes far too long to reveal what the viewer already knows going into the film: the sweetly innocent-seeming Huggins’ are absolutely up to no good. Far too much time is dedicated to Mary, ostensibly the most intelligent character, brushing off red flag after red flag until it's too late. We know where things are going, and the lull in getting there is cumbersome.
However, once the Huggins’ lay their cards on the table and their facade ends, things turn hellishly memorable. The film aggressively escalates into a deadly game of cat and mouse confined to this lavish country home's halls. The house is transformed into a prison, from which Mary cannot escape and must do the unimaginable to survive. The tonal shift switches the film's earlier mood of a tense standoff into an adrenaline-pumping fight for your limbs and life.
As the big reveal occurs, the film's widescreen perspective shifts to a smaller 4:3 aspect ratio. I'm unsure if this is due to the particular screener the studio provided me with, but I found it incredibly affecting. The aspect ratio tightening just as the film explodes with violence gave it a chest tightening claustrophobic presentation. I felt as if the walls themselves were closing in around me, the Huggins' home slowly but surely consuming Mary and myself.
Once we reach the film's conclusion, and the chase scene ends, the widescreen aspect ratio returns to normal. Whether this was an intentional directorial decision or not, it made my experience with the film's violence very memorable.
As far as reverse home invasion thrillers are concerned, The Owners’ mystery is a brazenly disturbing one paired with a sudden and satisfying gut-punch ending. Pairing this with an equally frightening fight for survival mostly makes up for the film's underutilizing Maisie Williams and its laborious middle act.
The Owners comes to theaters, VOD and Digital from RLJE Films September 4th.
By Jay Krieger