A Film Review by Shevaun Cavanaugh Kastl
Film by Director Giancarlo Ruiz
“Only those who risk going too far know how far they’re capable of going.
I am a person who likes the circus.”
I’m not gonna lie, The Neighbor was tough to watch at times, which is what makes it an effective thriller, because it’s relatable. People are the thing I fear most. We’re unpredictable and there are those out there (we see it on the news every day) who struggle with psychological issues that put the people around them, even perfect strangers, at risk. How do we ever know we are safe?
“The Neighbor” is an unnerving psychological thriller from Director Giancarlo Ruiz that follows “Raul” – a Voyeur whose psychosis escalates to violence when he becomes fixated on, and eventually, abducts, his neighbor’s wife.
The Narrative Plot of the film is fairly straightforward, but it’s Ruiz’s frenetic style that makes this film so unsettling. The tone and pace mirror the state of mind of a very troubled soul engaged in an endurance contest with his much more sinister alter-ego. Everything from the camera-work to the sound design to the original scoring of the film is meant to serve that purpose. Paco Mufote gives an impressive performance as “Raul,” flipping with disturbing ease from guilt-ridden Voyeur to Predator lying in wait.
When we first meet him, he is running through the streets in a clown costume, covered in blood. This scene begins the film but is taken out of sequence. (Don’t worry, I won’t give the ending away!) We immediately cut to the POV as seen through a Hi-8 video Camcorder, and wielded by a much more cautious, unassuming Raul. Personally I’m a little over the found-footage look, but Ruiz is careful not to overuse the cinematic tool. It’s effectively creepy and gives the Viewer access into how this Raul (I will explain in a moment) sees the world. This camera lens is a sort of protective shield from, well, Realism. We rarely see him without it and when he speaks, it’s almost childlike “Little bird, little bird.. where are you?” He also carries a small dog under one arm. The thing that truly ASTONISHED me as I was watching was that I thought to myself “This guy is an oddball, creepy, yes, but harmless.. And he has a dog!”
Raul lives in an empty studio apartment with bare-white walls, completely devoid of any furniture. His window is blocked out with newspaper and tape. He runs in circles around the room every now and then pausing at the covered window. Hesitant, he lifts a taped corner and there SHE is.. Alejandra Martinez, twenty-nine, the object of Raul’s obsession, hanging her lacy delicates on the clothesline just outside his window.
Alex and Alejandra Martinez live in the flat below. Raul has constant audio surveillance on the couple, portrayed by Isabel Orizaga and Sergio Valdez, recording and listening in on their every conversation. He learns of their marital problems, how they met at the Circus, every intimate detail of their lives. The audio surveillance is more than just a part of the plot, Ruiz uses it to facilitate a unique piece of sound design. Raul often fast-forwards through anything that doesn’t feed his fantastical fetish. Mundane conversation is sped-through resulting in high-pitched gibberish, while other words or phrases, particularly those spoken by Alejandra captivate his attention and he will play them over and over again as if consuming her words and making them a part of his story. It’s an effective tool of showing how the editing of emotional matter in the lives of others becomes immersed within him and when his darker, predatory self takes over, he is able to hear only what he wishes. (Well-demonstrated when the audio is out of sync or altered as the characters speak.)
Then we meet another Raul – this Man struts up the street with the confidence of a gigolo. He wears shades, carries a gun and runs around the rooftop of his building firing empty chambers. This is a different man, perhaps not yet dangerous but getting impatient and ready for action. The Music changes when Raul shifts from his reluctant voyeuristic self to the brazen, greedy, predator who is preparing to make his move.
The first half of the film shows these two personalities at odds – One desperate for absolution. (He even sprays the word RESIST on his white walls in red paint.) The other craving to dominate, consume the other and take what is not freely given: “I am you, you are me.. The more you fear me, the more you become me.. It’s time to make a decision.”
The film’s structure works in tandem with the escalation of Raul’s psychosis, the fractures in his sense of identity and deviant fixations. His unraveling is complicated, often hallucinatory, and we are along for his wild ride. It is both thrilling and disturbing to its core; not simply because of the disturbing subject matter but because, as viewers, we are also unwitting Voyeurs. And this is further emphasized by a signature style of camera-work by Alejandro Montalvo. There were moments where I actually experienced this unnerving sense of paranoia – the kind you get when you witness something you are not meant to see. The first time we see Alejandra from Raul’s window.. after she exits.. Ruiz simply leaves the camera on the clothesline, on the panties on the clothesline. With every second that passes the viewer is left simply staring at her underwear. Then, just when it becomes too uncomfortable to watch any longer, we hear a gate open and Raul appears to steal a pair of lace panties. Such voyeuristic scenes are peppered throughout the film and are highly effective in enhancing the Viewer experience of gaining a glimpse into Raul’s twisted, torturous mind, and the thrill and shame and cravings he struggles with through most of the film.
The film is designed to provoke interpretive discussion. Every shot, every element of set design, every choice of music or editing sequence is to reflect Raul’s inner turmoil and eventual consumption by his dark desires and violent machinations. Something that I found most unique and remarkable is a technique of freezing frame so that we are watching a series of still shots while the dialogue occurring in real time continues without pause. It’s an effective technique to further show the disassociation of Raul from making any genuine connections to the world/people/friends around him.
The many references to the “Circus” are another delicious detail to this film. Within the plot, it is simply the place Raul learns where the Martinez’s met and fell in love. But it serves a far more substantial purpose as a leitmotif for the way Raul sees the world and the people in it. The “Element of Play” is a way for Raul to dehumanize his victims and cope with the occasional pang of conscience he experiences. One might even surmise that he has staged a great scene and everyone has a part to play. Alex Martinez – The Husband – is the Fool who doesn’t value his wife. The Mime or Clown is Raul himself, the weaker self that is, who hadn’t the courage before to take what he desired. The Ring Master is who he is now, the Predator he has become, powerful, in control, dictating all that comes next. Applying the sense of theatricality and treating the events that ensue as part of a performance serves as a slight corrective for his conscience while livening his already maniacal psyche.
Overall, this is an impressive film with many layers and a compendium of stylistic, directorial maneuvers. Ruiz is not afraid to go off the border and explore different genres of film. “The Neighbor” is a provocative thriller with an avant-garde twist that also explores some serious sociological and cultural issues with identity and learned behavior according to what society deems politically correct. Why is it that we are so concerned with being “polite” that we would go against our human instinct so as not to be perceived as rude when we innately feel a threat is near? With the characterization of the Martinez’s, Ruiz makes some disturbing ruminations on why we so often ignore our primal senses when something sinister is close at hand.
It might be just next door…
Shevaun Cavanaugh Kastl is an award-winning actress, writer and producer currently living in NYC. Her production company, Mad About Pictures, has produced three films all currently playing the festival circuit. “The Mourning Hour”, her most recent film, just took top honors at The Williamsburg Independent Film Festival in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently writing a thriller feature but continues to pursue her acting career and can be seen on television and online in episodes of Revenge, Criminal Minds and Heroes.