Synopsis: When a pair of lovebirds rob a gas station, they aren’t thinking too clearly. Mickey (Bill Skarsgard) is just proud of himself for (mostly) keeping character and overcoming an argumentative cash register. Jules (Maika Monroe) is pleased with her crowd control skills and her ability to knock over a wire rack with a crowbar. The whole thing went off with only a couple of hitches, and now the lovebirds are on the road heading toward Florida. Well, they are heading that way until their car runs out of gas because they did not fill up at the gas station before robbing it. Whoops! What’re a couple of minimum wage kids with gun and crowbar to do?
They luck on a house out in the woods with a fast car in the garage and no one home to stop them borrowing it. This is a great opportunity they choose not to miss! Well, searching for the keys to the sweet ride proves a bust. However, it provides the crazy couple the chance to find out the house’s owners are not quite right because they are keeping a young girl (Blake Blaumgartner) chained up in the basement. While arguing about what to do, the owners come home.
George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedewick) are, at first glance, a pair of typical Americana sorts. Helpful and friendly. Amiable. However, they are also amoral murderers with no compunctions about doing away with a couple of losers like our protagonists. One problem, Gloria cannot bear her husband any children, and, well, the strapping young lad who broke in might be able to supply the juice they need to get their own family going. Will our plucky young couple make it out of this dangerous sitch with their lives and bodies intact? The answers await in writers/directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s quirky crime comedy, VILLAINS (2019).
Florida. Of course, these people want to get to Florida. Mickey and Jules are the very heart and soul of that state, if by heart and soul we mean comic crime headliners. If they actually made it to Florida, then these two characters are destined to be the sorts of head-shaking kids who pulled one boneheaded scheme too many and would up in prison. You know the sorts, they are all over Carl Hiaason novels and comic caper flicks.
At heart, VILLAINS wants to deliver a fun flick. For the most part, it succeeds. This is clearly in the mold of beach read thrillers. It’s brightly colored, visually interesting, peopled with the sorts of loveable losers and scary characters who would not be out of place in late Elmore Leonard, Donald E. Westlake, or (of course) Carl Hiaason bestsellers. It has a quirky sensibility that is akin to the kinds of things the folks who rode on Quentin Tarantino’s early successes would conceive of. It is sassy, funny, silly, and (in a very few circumstances) a little ugly to watch in its horror moments. Mostly, however, it is a fun little ride.
A story of this sort is only as good as its antagonists. Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgewick are having a delightful old time with their jobs. Donovan, who displayed an ease at disappearing into characters in his leading role on the show BURN NOTICE (2007-2013) dresses himself in the finery of a southern gentleman here. He sounds like Colonel Sanders, seldom resorts to actual profanity, and charms with a grin—even when he is telling you that you will soon be eating your own fingers.
Likewise, Sedgewick plays his partner and wife with a surprising sensitivity. Once upon a time, they were a pair of young lovebirds leaving their families behind (likely dead) and carving their own mark into this world. She is the sort for whom image is everything, whether that is an out of date costume and dance for seducing the hip youngster handcuffed to her bed or her surrogate for a baby she has been unable to bear. When crossed, however, the sensitivity drops right away and only emptiness remains behind. Her humanity switches off in a heartbeat. This is the mark of a great actor—Mads Mikkelson gave a similar style of performance in his turn as Hannibal Lector in that wonderful series adaptation of Thomas Harris’ famed character.
Our young leads are personable even though they are, well, let’s just call them inexperienced. They aren’t stupid, really, but they don’t have the sense that’s needed to be criminal masterminds. Skarsgard brings a kind of boy next door charm to his tatted out dude, Mickey. He’s an idea man when coked up, and he’s an action man when he’s not. He can think on his feet when he must, but he seems to prefer being a reaction-driven guy. However, he does have a decent way with picking a lock, and the wherewithal to take a crowbar to the door when his lock picking ability fails him. Admittedly, everytime he was on scream a little voice in the back of my head was screaming “It’s PENNYWISE! DON’T TRUST HIM!” but that’s because his portrayal of the killer clown aspect of the titular IT (2017/2019) is so well done.
Jules is the brains behind the pair. She is the heart of their little team, as well, the voice of reason that does not want to leave a little girl chained up to face some kind of terrible fate. She also thinks well on her feet, but the two of them seem to be operating from very different places, both emotionally and mentally. She is creative, but in not quite compatible ways to her beau. Of course, Monroe has been on my radar since her grounded, subtle, and engaging turn in 2014’s IT FOLLOWS. She knows how to play a part in silence, bringing gravity with body language or telling glance. She knows how to deliver dialogue for maximum effect, either getting a laugh or a shiver. She’s got some serious chops.
Throwing these four into a single location and watching the power dynamics shifting every few minutes is pretty great. It’s a stage play with special effects and an elaborate set. The dialogue is fun, and the actors deliver it well.
Apart from these four, there are few other characters. A cop, Officer Wells (Danny Johnson), shows up looking for some clues about the couple’s “abandoned car” down the way provides a nice distraction. He gets wind of something he does not like in George and Gloria’s house, and he decides to snoop a bit. Wondering if he will make it out of the house on his feet makes for a few suspenseful moments, as well.
All told, VILLAINS is a fun little suspense picture. A tad bloody (maybe more than a tad, now that I think of it), never gratuitous—though the f-bomb gets plenty of play here, mostly from the younger set who seem to wave it like a defiant flag—and not wildly creative in terms of scripted plotting. The draw for this sort of picture is the characters themselves, the give and take, the power shifts.
VILLAINS is a low budget flick with heart and spirit to spare, and the end credits animation is a kind of delirious exercise in creative kills and Day-Glo imagery. I cannot sing the praises of those end credits enough.
As I was watching it, I was put in mind of Wes Craven’s 1991 comic-thriller THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS. This is also a thriller that balances comedy with its suspense. It lacks the social subtext (or I suppose it would be text, since Craven’s film deals with the disparity between the upper class and everyone else as well as the state of African Americans stuck in the ghetto), but it does tackle the topic of the haves and have-nots from a tangential vector.
As well, the setup is surprisingly similar to that picture, with an obviously wealthy couple who are bent in the head keeping a child in the basement (along with the hint of several bodies) whose secrets are revealed when thieves show up. Of course, the screenplay might play with Craven’s story, giving us something decidedly different, but the two movies share enough similarities that I suspect the directors might have seen Craven’s picture a few times.
The film is not necessarily gentle in its approach, but it feels like comfort food of a sort for fans of the thriller genres. Although it teases us with horrors, it never really goes for the gross out. It might have some shocking things to show us about the monsters hiding in those sweet neighbors next door, but the film radiates a cheeriness that just obliterates any sense of dread—at least for me. I don’t count this as a bad thing, though folks looking for a gritty horror flick or a less comedic thriller might find themselves disappointed.
VILLAINS aims to be a fun little feature, and it succeeds.
VILLAINS sees release in theaters this September.
Next week, we will check in with an upcoming horror-comedy from director Chelsea Stardust, the campy delight SATANIC PANIC, which also releases this September.
“Movie Mondays: Villains” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and still image taken from IMDB.