When I was a teenager, I had a reoccurring nightmare which featured a shadowy figure who would watch me while I slept. He just stood there, and watched me. Sometimes he’d edge closer and closer until I woke up in a panic. It seems that writer/director Dominic Bridges crafted his debut feature film with my nightmares in mind, because it’s that exact fear that he capitalizes on in his 2017 dark horror-comedy, Two Pigeons.
The film begins, naturally, with two pigeons jostling for a sizable chunk of bread outside of a flat. After a clever bird’s eye view of the modestly-sized flat, we meet Hussein, the tenant, played with heart by Mim Shaikh. Though he’s a dapper-looking real estate agent, it takes only a minute to reveal that he’s a rather slovenly individual, from the way he brushes his teeth in the nude while on the toilet, to the precarious stack of dishes in his sink. After he goes off to work for the day, a still falls over the flat. In a Nosferatu-like introduction, a pale set of spindly fingers curl around the bedroom door, and Orlan warily emerges. His emaciated frame makes it easy to see why actor Javier Botet was previously cast as The Crooked Man in The Conjuring 2 (2016), and as Mama in Mama (2013).
Though he’s anything but imposing, Botet wields his skeletal body with considerable swagger for maximum repulsion and concern. Orlan goes through the same morning routine, using Hussein’s electric toothbrush and wiping his nethers with Hussein’s face towel. It’s clear that the viewer is meant to be disgusted by him, as evidenced by the sound crew’s zeal in ensuring that we hear every hock of spit and every rustle of his grimy, stained underwear. He spends his limited time out of isolation acting as a sort of mortal poltergeist, moving objects a few inches to the left or right, slowly depleting food, and even going so far as to actively endanger Hussein’s job by altering the alarm time on his bedside clock and secretly swiping Hussein’s phone and sending inappropriate images to its listed contacts.
Hussein, while confused, never quite catches on to the full extent of his uninvited guest’s wrath, but that doesn’t make him an empathetic character. Shaikh delivers a heartfelt performance as an egotistical young man who’s having a really bad month but has treated people so horribly that it’s hard to feel sorry for the guy. Just as Orlan spits into Hussein’s mouthwash and spies on Hussein’s girlfriend Mel (Mandeep Dhillion), Bridges keeps audience empathy from rising by allowing Hussein to open his mouth and insert his foot. That said, he may be a jerk, but the film struggles to find a moral balance between Hussein’s flawed personality and Orlan’s increasingly dangerous obsession with vengeance.
The imbalance doesn’t end with the moral dynamic between the two men, either. The ping-ponging from discomforting voyeurism to lighthearted bathtub hijinks to serious biological warfare doesn’t do much to keep a consistent tone for the film overall, but it all serves a singular point: Hussein is unsavory, and Orlan is out for vengeance. This point is hammered home every seven or so minutes with another one of Orlan’s excursions out of some crawlspace. The pattern: use Hussein’s stuff, eat Hussein’s food, put bodily fluids on more of Hussein’s stuff, move something out of place. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam. Two Pigeons’ greatest weakness was its runtime; even at a lean 76 minutes, the constant gross-out sequences made their point by the end of the first act and wore out their welcome by the end of the second.
The title of the film happens to be its most interesting element. Every day during Orlan’s stroll of the flat, a pair of pigeons visit the ledge outside the apartment window and he narrates a conversation between the birds, a conversation that illuminates the chain of events that led to the current situation. It’s here that Orlan is humanized, and Botet works wonders with the dead-end character journey he’s given, moving the pace along on his personality alone. In its own way, Two Pigeons is a ghost story: Orlan is a diminished shell of the man he once was, and now he has tethered onto Hussein and his residence, listlessly wandering the grounds with malicious aims until he completes his unfinished business.
Though masterful in its imagery and sound design, and memorable in its outstanding cast, the style and acting does not make up for the missed opportunities to resolve character arcs, which in turn resulted in an underwhelming third act. The hard truth is that Two Pigeons would have been at its strongest as a short film. Its stagnant pacing and dead-end character arc made for a lacklustre viewing experience, one that would have been better served by just filming, well…the two pigeons.
Rating: 2 out of five stars.