The Owners. 2020.
Directed by Julius Berg. Screenplay by Berg & Mathieu Gompel.
Starring Maisie Williams, Sylvester McCoy, Rita Tushingham, Jake Curran, Andrew Ellis, Ian Kenny, & Stacha Hicks.
Blue Light / Logical Pictures / Wild Bunch
Not Rated / 92 minutes
Horror / Thriller
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains slight spoilers!
Julius Berg has done a bunch of TV work, and he directed a couple shorts back in 1999-2000. Now he’s taking a crack at directing a feature, adapted from the 2011 French graphic novel Une Nuit de Pleine Lune by Yves H. and Hermann. I’ve never read the comic so I have no idea how well the story plays out compared to the original. All I know is, The Owners turns into a real creep fest with unexpected twists and surprising levels of violence.
The story follows Terry (Andrew Ellis), Nathan (Ian Kenny), and Gaz (Jake Curran) as they plan to break into a bourgeois couple’s home. Nathan’s girlfriend Mary (Maisie Williams), through no fault of her own, ends up getting dragged along. Everything comes apart when the couple— Dr. Huggins (Sylvester McCoy) and his wife Ellen (Rita Tushingham)— get home early, prompting Nathan and Gaz to change their plans. What happens next is a chain of violent events, and poor Mary’s caught in a whirlwind that reveals terrifying secrets inside the Huggins house.
Half of the essays I write about film cross over into Marxist theory. This one is no different because The Owners does get into clear issues of class. The screenplay, by Berg and co-writer Mathieu Gompel, has a good deal of stuff going on alongside its suspenseful plot. Issues of masculinity come up between the three thieves, serving to destroy what little bond they had beforehand and turning their robbery to chaos. Finally, family is a big theme in a couple eerie, parallel ways, pitting Mary against Dr. and Mrs. Huggins in that Gothic house right up to the final gut-wrenching moments.
Gaz is the instigator of most problems before the robbery goes completely bonkers. He starts in initially on Nathan by pushing the class divide between themselves and Dr. Huggins. He encourages Nathan to think about how the bourgeois doc and his wife have more than they ever will. Nathan tells Gaz “I spent my life with fuck all” and the latter urges “We‘re taking it back.” Soon it’s as if Nathan starts to feel like a living representation of the British working class— ironically while preventing Mary from getting to work— about to strike an important social blow by robbing one rich old couple. Just like any other part of the capitalist economy, thieves wind up turning against each other out of greed, which is the precipitating factor for much of the story’s violence.
Terry proves himself to be the most troubled by class. Later in the film he’s unable to see what’s going on with the doc and his wife because he’s been brainwashed into a class hierarchy, in part due to his mother being employed by the elderly couple. After it’s blatantly obvious what’s happening Terry still can’t accept the truth. And that’s only part of what lands them all in dire trouble.
The other major instigating force in Gaz’s arsenal is, unsurprisingly, toxic masculinity. He’s not the only one with masculinity issues, as we watch the three young men go from tentatively working together to being at each other’s throats. In conversation, Nathan refers to Terry’s missing earring as “the gay one.” Gaz talks down to Nathan about him and his “little lady” like the latter isn’t being enough of a man with Mary. During one especially tense scene he condescendingly uses the words “lollipop” and “bunny” referring to Nathan, who won’t immediately commit a nasty act of violence. Also, Terry tries being nice to Mary and Nathan’s threatened, only for Terry to try kissing her while they’re in the midst of violent crisis. Mary, as much as anything else, winds up having to fight off the men she entered the house with, their toxicity just as dangerous as the Huggins’s Gothic secrets.
“To every sin its reckoning”
The above quote about sin and reckoning suggests Dr. and Mrs. Huggins are at least somewhat religious. That could be one explanation for their explicit misogyny. Mrs. Huggins is probably the worst of the two, actually. In one scene, she talks about their dead daughter and mentions something along the lines of trying to help her not be a bad girl. She and Dr. Huggins have the same perspective of Mary. They call her things like “dirty parasite“— some classist language coming out— and the doc refers to “hormones” making her crazy. After Mrs. Huggins begs her husband to punish Mary for her perceived transgressions the following sequence is hauntingly nasty.
We come to understand Dr. and Mrs. Huggins have lost a daughter years ago and may be trying to replace her in the most horrifying sense. This is paralleled by Mary’s revelation to Nathan she’s pregnant, two different families starting again, albeit in wildly different ways. The family theme comes to an unsettling conclusion with a big twist right at the end, and also comes full circle back to more issues concerning class.
The old couple look down on Mary as a lower class “nasty tramp.” They see her as undeserving and unprepared to be a mother, simply because she’s a working class woman, not to mention one whose boyfriend got her mixed up in a robbery in the first place while she just wanted to go to work. Mary’s struggle against Dr. and Mrs. Huggins is one of survival. If she decides she does want to have the baby it’s not only her survival on the line.
Julius Berg’s film is the knock ’em down, drag ’em out type. It’s a horror-thriller that never slows down once it gets going. The three robbers are played well, yet it’s clearly Maisie Williams who— no pun intended— steals the show. We’ve already seen Williams do a lot of ass kicking on Game of Thrones, and it’d be dishonest to say her character here is vastly different. But they’re different in specific ways that allow Williams to show us something new after growing up on an HBO show playing a single character. Sylvester McCoy and Rita Tushingham are downright chilling as the elderly homeowners. Their performances take the film to scary places.
The Owners is eerie and exciting in equal measure. All the thrills and the horror compliment the story’s themes, bringing out terror based in issues of class, family, and masculinity. Although the events of the film are set in the 1990s there’s a timeless element to those themes, particularly class. We live in an age of rapidly increasing wealth inequality, the disparity between rich and poor widening year by year. Mary’s struggle in a world of toxic masculinity feels just as relevant because from the story’s ’90s setting to 2020 in the real world, none of that has changed, either. The film’s great, that doesn’t mean it isn’t endlessly grim in its conclusions.