‘Two Pigeons’ Movie Review: He’s Under Your Bed, Right Now [SXSW 2017]

Stephen King once laid out “the three types of terror,” escalating from Gross-out to Horror to Terror, with an unstated but implied hierarchy, with the sublimity of the uncanny and invisible dread of Terror as horror’s highest object. But ask any apartment dweller: are you more afraid of an otherworldly sense of eeriness or stepping on a cockroach on your way to the toilet? What Two Pigeons gets more than any other movie in recent memory is how powerfully disgust animates our day-to-day terrors.

Hussein (Mim Shaikh) is a hustling real estate agent — the kind of slickster in a loud suit who gets all his markups even as you flatter yourself for seeing right through his patter. But we don’t know Hussein at work, we know him at a home. And at home he’s immensely sympathetic. He likes gaming and pizza and a toke now and then, and procrastinates on doing the dishes or taking out the trash until his girlfriend is back. His lifestyle might feel familiar to a lot of iDigitalTimes readers and a solid majority of its staff. But what Hussein doesn’t know is that another man lives in his apartment, sometimes crammed in a crawlspace behind one wall of Hussein’s closet, sometimes right under Hussein’s bed or couch.

Later he'll do this with Hussein's toothbrush. Photo: Something We Believe In Productions

You may remember this video, which seems to be the most likely inspiration for Two Pigeons:

Instead of cockroaches, Hussein’s apartment is infested by a human, in this case a Spanish seeming-immigrant named Orlan (Javier Botet, whose height and Marfan syndrome thinness have made him invaluable to horror movie directors. Monsters in The Conjuring 2, Crimson Peak and Mama aren’t CG, they’re him). When Hussein is at work, Orlan eats his food — mixing a little bit from each cereal box.

At first it seems Orlan has just found a very strange survival strategy, but his tactics soon turn nastier. He wipes his butt with Hussein’s toothbrush, spits in his mouthwash, puts toenail clippings under his pillow. He’s like a desecrating gremlin. Not only does Orlan invade Hussein’s privacy, but also slowly pollutes his health and wellbeing. He leaves poop in the toilet, driving a wedge between Hussein and his girlfriend, Mel (Mandeep Dhillon). Late in the movie Orlan becomes more and more overt, leaving doors open and forcing Hussein to question his sanity.

There’s one word often used to describe single-location horror movies (though again, Two Pigeons feels more like an urban fantasia): claustrophobic. Two Pigeons is not claustrophobic, at least not at first. Instead, Two Pigeons understands an apartment as apartment-dwellers do, as a collection of micro-spaces inhabited one by one. Hussein has the seat he sits in to game. He has the place he stands in front of the stove to make tea in the morning and the same corner of the bed he falls asleep facing. The toilet isn’t just a toilet, it’s also where he sits naked and brushes his teeth. His London flat may not be huge, but it’s become capacious enough for the everyday habits of life.

It’s deeply upsetting to see that violated. But despite all that, Orlan is tragic, if not fully sympathetic. One of Two Pigeon’s greatest accomplishments that Orlan is so repulsive and unsettling, but we begin to understand how someone could become so alienated from normal human society. When Hussein is gone at work, Orlan talks aloud a dialogue between the two pigeons on the window ledge, reenacting how Hussein’s predatory salesman tactics broke apart his own family. In this Orlan becomes less Hussein’s tormentor and more his shadow.

Together they are locked in battle for the apartment, Orlan living out the inverse of Hussein’s life. Orlan begins to mimic Hussein’s handwriting and people in Hussein’s life even begin to mistake the two, leading to funny and surreal moments like Hussein arguing with his mother that the dick pic Orlan sent from his phone doesn’t look anything like his penis. Two Pigeons straddles that tricky divide often, humor and disgust crackling together in director Dominic Bridges and Rae Brunton’s script.

Other than the two pigeons on the window ledge, one of the few shots outside of Hussein’s apartment in Two Pigeons gives a view from just out in the hallway. Hussein’s friend and weed dealer, Sonny (Kola Bokinni), shows up at his door, drifting in from a purgatorial limbo space. The hallway is presented as an indefinable space, floating in a German Expressionist world of darkness, like the basement in Night of the Hunter. There is the apartment and there is the void of the outside world.

This single shot simultaneously establishes Two Pigeons as a sort of urban fantasy and captures something essential about apartment life: our apartments become the world. Living spaces, especially small ones, wield an influence over our perception of ourselves and our lives disproportionate to their physical space. Each square foot becomes inscribed with far more meaning than most spaces we inhabit. And so violations of that space become violations of sacred space; encroachment not just on an apartment, but on the contents of our minds and the contours of our soul — everything the living space has come to reflect over the course of inhabitance.

Later in Two Pigeons, after Hussein’s life has come undone, Sonny berates him for letting his whole mentality get shuttered down, narrower and narrower, into nothing but an animal defense of his living space. “Wonder what really makes this universe exist, be curious,” Sonny tells him, withholding the blunt. Sonny is speaking to us as well, urging additional readings of Two Pigeons outside the microcosm of the apartment. Because this is also a war waged over London real estate between an immigrant and a man whose very name, Hussein, speaks to some of the West’s deepest prejudices. Economic pressures pit the most put-upon and disadvantaged segments of society against each other. Politics can be very, very personal indeed. Shared toothbrush personal.

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