The Film: The Resident (2011)

The Principals: Antti Jokinen (Director). Hillary Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Aunjanue Ellis, Lee Pace and Christopher Lee.

The Premise: ER Doctor Juliet Devereau (Swank) moves in to a palatial loft in Brooklyn, when she finds the rent is just above 3 grand a month. This is a steal for her, apparently. And it’s too good to be true, since her landlord Max (Morgan) turns out to be a creepy stalker who develops an obsession with her. Suspense ensues.

Is it Good: It’s better than it has any right to be.

I’m not going to say this is some kind of revolutionary thriller or that it does amazing things with its paper-thin premise. It is exactly as generic as it sounds in basic terms. But there’s something to be said for sticking elements of quality into what could otherwise be a Sunday night Skinemax film. In fact, for most of its running time, it is actually a very absorbing chamber piece that explores obsession and loneliness in credible ways. This is aided by atmospheric cinematography and very solid production design (although the film takes place in NY, most of it was actually shot on soundstages in New Mexico) that feels authentic, while lending things an appropriately gothic edge. It’s also elevated by two very strong, convincing performances from Hillary Swank and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.

I like how neither of them quite fall into the cliché of their archetypes. We learn that Swank’s ex (Lee Pace) cheated on her and they’re on a break. But he’s still after her (aren’t they always?) and she still thinks of him fondly. This is an unusual approach. But it is true to life. Usually, the jilted woman in these films is portrayed as a victim hounded by her asshole ex. This time, it turns out the ex is just a regular guy who made a mistake and she still loves him, regardless. I found that refreshing.

On the other side of the coin, you have the stalker villain. Jeffrey Dean Morgan doesn’t portray him as an unhinged psycho, just a lonely man who isn’t quite connected to reality. But, when we first meet him, he comes off as genial and charming. Morgan uses his natural masculinity to create a very likable leading man. It gives things an interesting edge when his true colors are revealed. And that edge stays there.

Early in the film, there is mutual flirtation going on. But, when Swank realizes she’s still in love with her ex, she backs off. This leads to a scene in which Morgan expresses confusion. “You kissed me first,” he says. Her response of “We were trying things out. That’s what people do” is hurtful. And, even though Morgan’s character is clearly a deeply wounded man who doesn’t have the emotional tools for a real connection, it’s easy to sympathize with his frustration at that moment. I like that the movie has those kinds of layers. You feel like you’re watching a real situation unfold. Maybe you’ve even had a similar conversation, or experienced similar feelings – on either side of the equation. That attention to psychological realism is not common for B movies of this type.

The film owes a debt to the B thrillers of the 60s, but it very explicitly references Psycho, with Morgan a less wimpy Norman Bates and, instead of “Mother,” you have a rather domineering father played by Christopher Lee. It’s clear that Finnish TV director Antti Joniken is looking to Hitchcock for inspiration. So, he keeps things subdued and classically paced. It’s a slow-burn thriller, rather than a roller coaster ride.

The suspense comes from very believable, down-to-earth things. There is a terrific scene in which Morgan sneaks into Swank’s loft in the middle of the night. The circumstances of the scene, and what it eventually builds to, I won’t reveal. Suffice to say that it’s charged with a very real, erotic tension and might hit you in a very deep place. There is something very primal about being violated in such a pure way. And this movie manages to capture that, however briefly, and with real style.

It’s because of that sense of style, rich characterization and attention to old-fashioned details that the film’s final moments become all the more disappointing. I found myself forgetting I was watching a low budget B thriller and got caught up in the realistic tension and suspense of the situation. But then the movie reminds me exactly what it is with a ridiculous Friday the 13th climax that involves Swank being chased around the brownstone by a raging psychopath, culminating in an absurd  coup de grace that comes off like a punchline. All the film’s psychological realism is thrown out the window in favor of rah-rah bombast and histrionics.

I don’t know why they felt the need to go in this direction. The film’s final 20 minutes feel like a more commercial alternate ending tacked on by the studio to appease those assholes that got picked up at a mall; and wanted to see a slam-bang thrillride, instead of a thoughtful psychological drama, when they walked into the theater for free that evening.

Well, I don’t think that a small movie like this had to worry about that, so it’s very disappointing that – after putting all that care into crafting a better than average potboiler – the filmmakers felt they had to make such schlocky concessions….

Is it worth a look: …..but, then again, it is a Hammer film. It’s possible that the filmmakers just wanted to honor fine B movie tradition with such a silly ending. In the 60s, Hammer was in the business of putting an artful, classy spin on the standard B movie formula. I suppose this movie is worth a look if only to support that initiative and celebrate Hammer’s return to movie screens. We probably won’t really feel their presence until next year’s The Woman in Black. But you could do worse than this watchable, atmospheric thriller to tide you over until then.

Besides, don’t you want to hear Christopher Lee’s American accent? It’s better than his Chinese accent.

Cinematc Soulmates: Wait Until Dark, Psycho, A Stranger Is Watching, Play Misty For Me