Villains has one of the weirdest posters I’ve seen all year. It looks like it’s been cobbled together by someone on a very strict deadline without only a basic knowledge of the film. And yet, after watching this strange, moody, and frequently very funny little movie, I kind of think it…fits? Villains is weird. It’s a weirdo. But its weirdness presents itself in delightfully surprising, and wonderfully nasty, ways as the impressively labyrinthine story unfolds.
We open on no-good types Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe), as, Pulp Fiction-style, they romantically discuss and then execute a robbery. Similar to that seminal movie’s criminal couple, these two are slightly inept, not even managing to open the cash register at first. Still, they get out with some cash and set off on the open road for Florida, where it’s warm and sunny and nobody cares whether you’re a criminal because everybody else there is one too.
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Unfortunately, their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, but, after noticing a mailbox a bit further down the road, they happen upon a concealed, well-to-do house. Mickey and Jules, being the dopey millennials that they are, decide to break in, partake of some cereal, do some cocaine, and then steal the occupants’ car. Before they can make a break for it, however, they find a little girl chained up in the basement. And then the house’s owners come home.
Villains is one of those movies predicated on the idea that there are always worse people out there than the obvious bad guys. In that sense, Mickey and Jules aren’t really that terrible, even if they do rob a gas station and make themselves at home in a stranger’s house. Once they realize there’s a child in trouble, they spring into action, promising the seemingly mute kid that they’re going to get her out of there no matter what.
At first, the premise seems fairly straightforward, a bit like The Collector lite, but a strangely jaunty score and a variety of well-placed belly laughs hint that Villains isn’t going to play out the way we’re expecting. Indeed, once homeowners George and Gloria show up, resplendent in kitschy fifties attire, the tone switches from strange to downright oddball as barbs are traded and threats made all with mega-wattt smiles intact. Clearly, bodies will hit the floor sooner rather than later.
The movie’s great strength lies in its terrific casting. The reliable brilliant Monroe, who broke out in It Follows and has continued to ascend in the years since, even turning her role in the ludicrous Greta into a major event, is spiky and resourceful as Jules. Rather than relying on her man to do everything for her, Jules is the one pushing Mickey the whole time, her voracious sexual appetite (okay, this trait was clearly devised by men, but still) barely contained even when things start to go downhill.
Skarsgård, meanwhile, relishes the opportunity to show off what he can do without all that clown makeup on, imbuing his low-level crim with intelligence, charisma, and a genuine love and affection for Jules. They may be bad people, but this hapless duo cares a great deal about each other and, as their predicament gets more complicated, they consistently refuse to sell each other out. In the film’s most gruesome moment, they even coach each other to devise a MacGyver-like escape plan (I genuinely had to look away, so if you have a tongue piercing, proceed with caution).
Villains would fall flat if we didn’t fully believe in Mickey and Jules as a couple. But their counterparts, in George and Gloria, represent another take on lifelong love and commitment that further highlights their dedication to each other. Here, again, casting is key, as Jeffrey Donovan (Sicario) and Kyra Sedgwick (everything, but most recently seen tussling with Captain Holt as Madeline Wuntch in Brooklyn Nine Nine) take to their roles with aplomb, while retaining an air of gravitas that ensures they never become caricatures.
There’s an underlying theme about child abandonment running throughout Villains, whether it’s Jules being deserted by her parents or Gloria desperately trying to fill the hole left by her own mother with a child she can’t conceive, that underscores the child trapped in the basement element. If this was simply a case of pedophilia or other Don’t Breathe-style nastiness, it wouldn’t work as well, but Jules’s childhood heartbreak is mirrored in Gloria’s and explains why both women have ended up where they are in life, for better or worse.
This might make the movie sound like a bit of a slog, but Villains is a total riot. The comedy doesn’t undercut the tension because the characters are so well drawn and believable that they all present as wildcards. When someone says or does something outrageous, it makes complete sense. Writer-director duo Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, who worked on so-so horror sequel The Stakelander, keep a tight grasp on the material throughout. It never feels like things are escalating out of their control, or just for the sake of it.
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Likewise, DOP and frequent Berk-Olsen collaborator Matt Mitchell gives the film a rich, grainy texture so the single location never feels limiting in its scope. Glimpses of the woods outside suggest a vast wilderness, and the rich browns, greens, and oranges provide warmth, so George and Gloria’s place feels like a home rather than just a house where bad things happen. Costuming is hugely important here too, whether it’s Jules’s super cool red dress and boots combo, Mickey’s trendy-loose shirt, or the older couple’s buttoned-up conservative attire (Gloria lets loose in one scene, to horrifying effect).
It’s a small story with vast implications and the little details are key to selling the madness that unfolds. Villains has a similar energy to Piercing, with its art-pop giallo aspirations, only where that film was po-faced and earnest, this one throws out the rule-book entirely and has fun ripping up the pages and chucking them everywhere, reveling in the mess. Although it’s controlled carnage, Villains is consistently, and delightfully, surprising. The cast is clearly having a ball and nobody leaves unscathed. A total blast.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Dan Berk, Robert Olsen
Writer(s): Dan Berk, Robert Olsen
Stars: Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick
Release date: September 20, 2019
Studio/Production Company: BRON Studios
Run Time: 89 minutes
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