Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Kyra Sedgwick, & Jeffrey Donovan impress in this home invasion gone wrong
At any festival, you keep an eye out for that little gem of a film that impresses in its concept and execution, while providing a rollicking good time. A gnarly piece of genre fare that is usually best fitted to the midnighter slot, aided by a game audience. At SXSW this year, that film was Villains, a film with a rather twisted inversion of the home invasion scenario, one that stands out thanks to its unpredictability, superb performances, and a tight script and execution by writer-director duo Dan Berk and Robert Olsen.
Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are enraptured dreamers, filled with notions of absconding to Florida and selling seashells for a living. They set their ambitions in motion by robbing a gas station together. On the run with a bag of money and a selection of recreational drugs, their car runs out of gas, bringing them to a halt on a country road. They see an opportunity to continue their escape by breaking into a remote home in search of transport. Inside they find eerily dated decor and a young girl chained to the floor in the basement. Homeowners George (a mustache-twirling Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) return to find the pair, and after a brief standoff, get to show their own twisted brand of Southern hospitality.
It’s a simple premise but milked for all it’s worth thanks to a tight, fun script and some brilliantly developed characters. Olsen and Berk take an indie crime caper and crash it into a twisted midnighter, admirably handling the shifts in tone that result. The film sways back and forth between psychological warfare and physical knockdowns, neither party wanting to get the police involved, which only leads to more maneuvering on both sides. Set predominantly in a single location, with an off-kilter, chintzy aesthetic serving as a pressure cooker, it ramps up the tension and stakes in a wildly unpredictable situation.
There’s a wild abandon to Mickey and Jules that brings to mind Bonnie and Clyde, a criminal side that seems fueled by passion rather than anger or desperation. A rush of hormones and drugs fuel their decisions, which usually turns out as badly as you’d expect. This is balanced by plenty of tender moments to show they care and try to do the best for each other, even when given a gnarly edge, such as a standout scene involving a tongue piercing. Their decisions in the first act also set them on the road to a redemptive arc, making you root for these misfits all the more. Skarsgård proves he can be as charming as he can be perturbing (IT yo), bringing a little bit of a bumbling heart-throb edge to the role. Monroe continues to show the spark which has helped carve out a name for herself in genre cinema (It Follows, Hot Summer Nights, The Guest). While these vibrant dreamers add a pulpy feel, Donovan and Sedgwick bring an altogether different tone. George presents as a well-heeled and eloquently spoken gent with a molasses-like drawl. Gloria is a prim Southern belle aghast at the young couple’s vulgar language. These antiquated notions make their true nature all the more twisted. The performances teeter on the verge of being cartoonish, both clearly enjoying their parts, but a dangerous edge keeps them from crossing that line. Delightfully warped characters, they’re clearly psychopaths, but again, a sympathy for their situation is established with a rather warped sojourn into fertility issues.
What makes Villains work so well is how it takes the time to deftly sketch out the past and the potential futures these four aspire to, which firmly immerses you in their present, establishing the dynamics of each couple and playing them against each other with delicious results. Villains isn’t as dark and gruesome as some genre fare–more of a midnighter for the masses–but its focus on the characters is what really makes it a success. A brilliantly executed film with energy and performances to revel in. Exactly the right kind of twisted fun you hope to find at a festival.