Mickey (Bill Skarsgård, It) and Jules (Maika Monroe, The Guest, It Follows) are a wannabe Bonnie and Clyde. Drug addled, wild, and in love, they plan to rob their way to Florida, with an overly idyllic dream of selling sea shells on the sea shore. Until they break into the wrong house. When circumstances dictate they invade the home of George (Jeffrey Donovan, Burn Notice) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer), a stuffy, seemingly uptight couple, they get so much more than they bargained for and we find out who the real bad guys are. So goes Villains, the new horror-comedy from writer/directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen (Stake Land 2).
The film is really about what lies beneath the surface. George and Gloria appear to be perfectly normal. Old-fashioned in an 1950s, Leave it to Beaver kind of way; perhaps a bit odd and anachronistic, but still so very ordinary. You can almost see the glint off their sparkling teeth when they smile. But that exterior masks dark secrets, deep wounds, and sadistic tendencies, as well as a sincere love, in its own way.
On the other hand, for all their reckless outlaw posturing, Jules and Mickey are hardly the hardened criminals they present themselves as. Like they themselves, their plan is haphazard, ill-conceived, and driven by passion and flights of fancy—the opening where they rob a convenience store in cheap rubber masks is hilarious and encapsulates the impulsive side of their personalities. But there’s also much more to them. They’re earnest and genuinely in love, and despite their lawless streak, they’re guided by a conscience that gets them in trouble when they find something horrific they can’t ignore, from which they can’t walk away.
Berk and Olsen keep the tempo brisk and the pace moving forward, peppering the plot with shifts and clever reveals. But even with that, it’s the performances that propel Villains. Donovan is best known for broad TV work that hinges primarily on his handsomeness and charm, and here he cranks that up to caricature levels. His heightened, borderline campy performance perfectly fits George’s façade—he’s all grins and affable chuckles, but that jovial veneer hides sinister intentions and those teeth may bite. Sedgwick balances a bubbly ditziness with an undercurrent of sadness, trauma, and pain. At first, they look like one thing, but reality reveals something quite different.
Monroe and Skarsgård present a similar dichotomy and journey, but in the opposite direction. All chaotic nihilism initially, Monroe exposes a depth of caring and a nurturing aspect of Jules that her wild side hides. How good she is should be no surprise to those familiar with her resume. Skarsgård won the well-deserved Best Actor prize at the North Bend Film Festival, where I saw Villains, and continues to do fantastic, unexpected work. There’s never a ton of backstory for the younger couple, but we clearly see who they are via their actions.
There is a bit of inconsistency, most noticeably with Mickey, though that’s a script issue more than a performance one. Villains presents him up front as a dolt, as an idiot, though he turns out to be more clever than expected. It’s not a huge sticking point, and you can easily gloss over it and chalk it up to the drugs and adrenaline of the early scenes. Still, it’s a sudden jump and his smarts don’t always jibe with how the film establishes him.
Formally, Villains is straightforward stuff, though all solid and steady. But again, it’s the characters that sell the film. We get four complex, well-written and fleshed out personalities, with four fantastic, very different performances that nail each. Full of sneaky twists, it’s not what it initially appears; while it feels light and bubbly at times, it also gets dark and bleak and sweet. It would be easy for these disparate elements to clash, but they mesh well and the result is balanced and crowd-pleasing, smart and sharp, and a little heart-breaking to boot. [Grade: B+]