‘Villains’ Can’t Quite Settle on a Tone or Genre

by Warren Cantrell on September 17, 2019

in Podcasts,Print Reviews

[Rating: Swiss Fist]

In trying to bridge the gap between twee and horror, writers/directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen have made a movie that is neither and struggles to find an identity as a result. The story of a pair of young outlaws on the run who happen upon a set of actual, real-deal criminals, Villains boasts a great set-up, and has a crackerjack cast behind it. Tonal inconsistency and a failure to commit to its conceit hamper the effort, however, leaving a film that is sometimes interesting, infrequently fun, and altogether scattered.  

Villains opens with young lovers Jules (Maika Monroe) and Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) robbing a gas station, only to then run out of gas a mere mile or so down the road. Such an obvious oversight in planning would be enough to inform the audience of the level of sophistication of this would-be Bonnie and Clyde, but the script doesn’t risk any mistake in this regard, showing Jules and Mickey to be more taken with the idea of being criminals than the crimes themselves. Stranded without any gas, and desperate to get on the move again, the pair break into a secluded house hoping to find a new car, and instead find a little girl chained up in the basement.

It’s right around this point that the homeowners return: an overly domesticated June and Ward Cleaver type whose plastic smiles and welcoming demeanor take Jules and Mickey even more aback. And this is where things get interesting in Villains, for these homeowners, George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), seem trapped in some kind of psychosexual time warp, with their attitudes and even their furniture seemingly stuck in the past. What follows is a battle of wits and wills, with each side taking turns getting the upper hand on the other: the stakes of which couldn’t be higher considering the parties involved.

As the movie settles into its second act, George and Gloria reveal themselves to be depraved ghouls whose encounter with Jules and Mickey is akin to a spider getting robbed by a fly. The chained-up kid in the basement along with a quickly discarded video camera featuring torture porn hint at a level of depravity the young gas station thieves can’t compete with, yet a plucky score and an overreliance on goofy comedy routines keeps the tension at bay and the audience at ease. Although Villains feels like Bottle Rocket meets House of 1000 Corpses, it leans far more into the former camp than the latter, removing any real tension from the proceedings.

Even so, there’s subtext to admire, here, along with a knowing wink at the history of the film’s genre. Harkening back to flicks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Last House on the Left, Villains tickles the audience’s expectations vis a vis the wandering-stranger-gone-home trope, yet manages to carve its own path in the process. Indeed, unlike those films, which commented on the decay of the working class or the persecution of the traditional family unit, Berk and Olsen lampoon the “good ol’ days” of the family values crowd, using the frozen-in-time setting of George and Gloria’s home as an indictment of such halcyon memories.

Yet it never quite comes together, and despite these intriguing maneuvers, the themes don’t mesh with the narrative in any meaningful way. The cast does a fine job with the script, with Donovan and Sedgwick both sinking their teeth deep into their dialogue with a palpable relish, yet in some ways their roles are the easy ones. They have to play smooth-talking psychopaths, sure, yet there’s little variance in what they need to do (be crazy), and as a result they can hit cruise control with their parts and really go for broke. Monroe and Skarsgård have more difficult jobs playing up the humor of the set pieces while still trying to maintain that underlying fear/desperation, and try as they might, they can’t quite pull it off.

And this isn’t their fault, really. Villains wants to be scary yet quirky, tense but funny: yet in trying to do it all, it stumbles. Had Berk and Olsen committed to either side of this spectrum they might have gotten somewhere, yet as it stands, the film feels off balance, tilting as it frequently does between two stylistic realms. Some interesting kernels pop from time to time, like George’s speech about his salesman days, or Jules’ backstory, yet too little of this develops to bear fruit enough to nourish the narrative.    

Stuck in limbo between two genres, Villains flirts with some interesting ideas and does enough good character work to keep it engaging throughout its brisk 88-minute runtime. Yet the struggle to find its footing on two different sides of the tonal fence ultimately hamstrings this one beyond salvageability, leaving the audience with more questions than answers, and more problems than plaudits. Strong performances by Donovan and Sedgwick save the film from outright failure, yet they also act as a tease for what might have been with a tighter script and more focused direction. This doesn’t make Berk and Olsen villains by any means, but it does feel like they’ve engaged in something without much of a plan: much like a pair of robbers who knock over a filling station only to then, shortly thereafter, run out of gas.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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