Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of young adults break into an old person’s home looking for an easy score and find themselves in an unexpected battle for survival instead.
American audiences familiar with Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe will feel a sense of deja vu with The Owners, the feature debut of director Julius Berg (out now on Blu and DVD). Both films use the same starting point to deconstruct the home invasion film subgenre, but the new film is ultimately far less successful.
The Owners follows Nathan (Ian Kenny), Terry (Andrew Ellis) and Gaz (Jake Curran), a trio of low-level, less than wise twenty-something criminals. Initially Nathan appears to be the ringleader, but it is quickly revealed that Gaz is actually the one in charge. Terry, meanwhile, is the informant (his mother works at the isolated country home they’re targeting). All three men fall into readily identifiable character types: Nathan is quick to anger, Terry is the schlubby idiot and Gaz is the outsider, with his distinct style of dress, severe hairstyle and threatening swagger.
The plan is simple: the three will break into the large, expansive Huggins home and empty the safe, which will provide them with the funds to escape from the poverty and ennui of their bland country lives. This is all conveyed in dialogue as The Owners is essentially a single location film, with nearly the film’s entire runtime taking place inside the home over the course of a single night.
The action begins as the trio watch Ellen Huggins (Rita Tushingham) and her doctor husband, Richard (Sylvester McCoy), prepare for their weekly dinner date. Just as the men prepare to initiate the break-in, they’re interrupted by Nathan’s girlfriend Mary (Maisie Williams), who demands they return her car. Initially it’s presented as a significant plot point that Mary is an unwilling participant in the robbery, though Nathan quickly lures her inside, by which time it’s too late to back out because the plan has fallen apart. The inept thieves are made to stick around and wait for the Huggins’ return, at which point co-screenwriters Berg and Mathieu Gompel crank up the action.
These early sections of the film, as the characters jockey for authority, is when The Owners is at its best. There’s a sense that anything could happen, particularly in the scenes when Gaz encourages Nathan to terrorize Ellen in exchange for information from Richard. There’s also a touch of welcome comedy, which balances out the action and lessens how insufferable the young men are (they are all thoroughly unlikeable in a way that becomes increasingly aggravating as the film progresses).
As most audiences will anticipate, the remainder of the film becomes a battle for survival among the remaining characters. After the first act in the basement, the narrative moves upstairs, but the result is slightly laborious reset as everyone pretends the danger has passed. Berg and Gompel spend too long teasing out the inevitable conflict and the characters’ motivations, particularly oafish Terry, cease to make any sense.
The brunt of the labour falls, then, on Williams, who delivers a capable performance as a distraught young woman caught unexpectedly in a deadly situation. As the ineffectual twists stack up around her and the action borders on the utterly ridiculous, Williams does what she can to ground the insanity. It doesn’t help that the screenplay requires Mary to alternate between a yelling shrew and an ineffectual Final Girl.
Faring best are the film’s older actors, who get to play a range of emotions from cowed to homicidal. Tushingham offers a demented, distressed performance while McCoy delights as a dutiful, manners-oriented home owner.
Unfortunately the film around them is far less enjoyable. There’s no tension or dread to be found, which is an issue when the character development is paper thin. Even more problematic is the fact that the film peaks early: there’s nothing in the last two acts of the film that come close to the thrills of the scenes in the basement (a kitchen encounter with smoke bombs comes close, but by that point it’s too late).
Despite attempts to amp up the violence and the gore, the film is little more than a series of violent encounters that feel both familiar and desperate to shock. With no characters to root for and a runtime that feels punishingly long for what it’s doing, The Owners is a mean, unpleasant slog.