It’s the home invaders who find themselves imperiled in “Villains,” the third feature collaboration for directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen. This black comedy thriller has a good cast to spark a scenario that’s intriguing enough to hold attention, if not quite clever enough to be a knockout. As an accessible, playful genre item with some familiar faces, “Villains” should have no trouble scaring up streaming and cable sales after premiering at the SXSW Film Festival.
An oddly naïf pair of felons, Mickey (Bill Skarsgard) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are introduced making their living — which is to say, donning animal masks to rob a convenience store. Bonnie and Clyde they’re not. Or perhaps they are, in that that real-life duo wasn’t particularly brainy or ambitious either, and seemingly low on alternative, law-abiding life skills. But like them, Jules and Mickey are in love, the kind of love that’s equal parts co-dependency, shared childishness, and barely-legal libido.
After their latest low-end caper, however, they realize they forgot something — namely to actually get gas at the gas station they just knocked over. With their car kaput in the middle of nowhere, they luckily spy a house nearby. There’s even a stealable car in the garage. They break into the home in search of keys, instead finding something else: a sullen, mute little girl (Blake Baumgartner) ankle-chained to a pole in the basement.
Jules insists they free her from whatever abusive predicament she’s in. But that act is interrupted by the appearance of homeowners George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), a curiously retro couple to match their curiously retro home. Mickey’s got a gun, so this situation seems easily handled. But that dynamic changes quickly, and the younger pair soon find themselves in various forms of bondage, their future looking dim and their hosts very, very crazy.
Similar setups have been milked previously to effects more grotesquely alarming (as in the British “Mum & Dad”) or energetically exciting (Wes Craven’s minor classic “The People Under the Stairs”), and “Villains” keeps the complications and power reversals coming briskly enough to amuse. There’s more modest invention to the directors’ execution than to their script, though. What gives it zest is the work by the principals, who hit variably comic notes, though all create nicely detailed characterizations. Especially good are Skarsgard and Donovan, who render their none-too-bright hero and none-too-nice villain quite delightful in different ways — dithering short-fused trailer-park founding on the one hand, mellifluously malevolent country gentleman on the other.
Nicely assembled in all departments, the film gets a boost from Annie Simeone’s production design for the house interior, which appears to have been cryogenically frozen somewhere around 1966 — probably before George and Gloria were born, but in the logic of movies, an apt enough era for their bizarre facsimile of hyper-normality to be trapped in.
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