Thrillers that unfold in a tightly limited amount of time, an afternoon or even a single day, can be tough to execute well. Some of the best include Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) and Kim Seong-hoon’s A Hard Day (2014), but they have the advantage of letting their protagonists roam whole cities in pursuit of those thrills and spills. Add in a tightly limited space, though, and things get even more difficult for characters and filmmakers alike. Writer/director Yeom Ji-ho accepts that challenge with the energetic and fun Next Door, and a couple bumps aside he succeeds with an entertainingly twisty thriller.
Chan-woo (Oh Dong-min) is something of a slacker with real ambitions. He’s been trying for five years to get into the police academy, and this might just be his last chance. He’s been studying despite his noisy neighbor, and with the application deadline the following day he makes the unfortunate decision to go out drinking with friends. When he awakes hungover the next morning, though, it’s in his neighbor’s apartment, covered in bruises, with no memory of how he got there — and with a dead body on the floor in a pool of blood.
It’s a simple, irresistible setup, and Next Door wastes no time dropping Chan-woo into the thick of things with little hope of squirming his way out. Yeom twists the screws with locked doors, pesky visitors, and a slow drip of revelations and recovered memories as to what exactly landed our hero in this predicament. Things get a little sloppy in the home stretch, but they’re easily forgivable missteps given the otherwise entertaining and satisfying results.
As the minutes tick by it becomes more than a little bit clearer as to why Chan-woo has struggled getting into the academy — he’s maybe not quite all that good of an investigator? His attempts at using a messy memory and the evidence before him to solve the crime lead to both false leads and clumsy truths, but his stumbles are our entertainment. The situation leaves him trapped in the apartment with the corpse, and his efforts to reconstruct the events leading up to his current predicament leads him down empty mental roads and false conclusions. Yeom maintains an energetic pace even within the confines of the apartment by introducing new obstacles and reveals along the way.
The film’s darkly comical nature finds a willing accomplice in Oh’s performance as he fumbles his way through it all, sometimes quite literally. Chan-woo is something of a doofus, but he’s a likeable guy prone to poor choices — maybe not exactly the guy you’d want to see as a policeman, but as a down on his luck young man making one last try for success he’s plenty easy to root for. Oh delivers some solid physical comedy as he dashes around the apartment, reacts to revelations, and swings between balconies from a makeshift rope. He’s a desperate man who might not be up to the task before him, and that leads to a good time for viewers.
Next Door wisely limits audience knowledge to only what Chan-woo himself knows. We’re along for the investigatory ride making our own assumptions and deductions along the way and seeing them challenged with each new turn. Yeom’s script has fun yanking the bloody rug from beneath Chan-woo’s feet on occasion turning the man’s conclusions into false leads and forcing him to consider other possibilities.
The only real missteps here are in a third act that feels a little rushed in its efforts to wrap things up with a conclusion. There’s no drag in Next Door, and at only ninety minutes there’s still room to breath, but Yeom seems intent on a quick exit. To be sure, it works well enough, but some threads are left hanging that he attempts to reel in with some brief exposition which ultimately feels like the bare minimum. It’s fine, but it leaves the film going out on a more static and stable beat than the energetic highs that came before.
Next Door is Yeom’s feature debut, and it’s a fun, fast watch that shows him capable of creating suspense and thrills while holding viewer interest with a limited environment. That’s already more than many more established filmmakers can claim, so in addition to seeking out this good time you’d be smart to also keep an eye out for whatever Yeom does next.