Villains feels like the sort of film the Coen Bros. might make if they were snowed in at a friend’s ski lodge for a long weekend, keeping the cameras rolling in an effort to stave off cabin fever. It has a loose, almost careless sort of feel to it—a combination of thriller, home invasion horror and dark comedy that feels both occasionally charming and admittedly overfamiliar. It’s meant to thrive almost solely on its performances, which it does—to an extent. But it never aspires to much, beyond providing a quick-moving 88 minutes. It’s the poster child for low-stakes but generally entertaining indie thrillers.
Villains is essentially a film of four characters, which comprise two couples: One in their 20s, and one ambiguously middle aged. Our viewpoint characters are young lovers on the run, Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe), who begin the film by knocking off a convenience store in particularly bumbling fashion, revealing the characters’ relative lack of competence and composure—as does the fact that they immediately run out of gas before getting far from the scene of the crime. These two are obnoxious goofballs, frequently drawing inspiration from quick bumps of cocaine. It’s painfully clear that they’re out of their depth, having seemingly drawn their personas from too many bad movies in the vein of Bonnie and Clyde. Never is it truly clear whether they genuinely love each other, or whether they’re each simply overenthusiastic and deluded about the “romantic” scenario of going on the run with a partner as a pair of legendary outlaws. If the script casually mentioned that they’d known each other for a month or two, it would be easy to believe, as Jules and Mickey seem particularly susceptible to sudden, snap decisions.
Contrast that with George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), a pair of seemingly innocuous, middle-aged homeowners whose house Mickey and Jules decide to ransack in search of alternative transportation. They’re meant to give off a particular vibe of Midwestern vacuousness, but for the discovery of something that throws a spanner into the works—there’s a little girl chained up in the basement. And really, that’s all we need for 88 minutes of conflict, as Mickey and Jules take it upon themselves to become the heroes and “lesser of two evils” in this scenario. It’s a set-up we’ve seen in numerous films before: Petty criminals run up against serious criminals, delivered with a puckish tone and no shortage of gallows humor.
Of the leads, it’s Skarsgård and Donovan who stand out favorably. Monroe is a likable presence, and we’re eager to see the It Follows actress land more starring roles, but she seems a bit out of her depth here in the film’s more comic material, as if she’s struggling to lend truth to a character who isn’t supposed to be particularly bright. Skarsgård, best known for scaring the bejesus out of a new generation of coulrophobics as Pennywise in Andy Muschietti’s It, handles that same challenge with more naturalism, pulling off the film’s more memorably goofy dialog, as when he assures Jules that “your tongue is really strong; it’s a great, strong tongue” as he prepares to rip out a tongue stud to use as a lockpick. His squirrelly energy is put to good use here.
It’s Donovan who pretty much steals the show, though. The Burn Notice actor is playing a genuinely odd character, speaking like a southern gentleman and dressed like Laurence Olivier in one of his more suave roles, like Max de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. He’s rocking a freaking ascot, for Christ’s sake, smirking in a demented way that makes it look like the film’s costume designer cribbed the rictus-grinned look of Roy Brisby on The Venture Brothers. He’s playing a larger-than-life character that unfortunately can’t be matched by Sedgwick, who is given more craziness but less genuine characterization.
Homage, or coincidence?
After establishing its simple dynamic, Villains breezes by on autopilot, highlighted by occasional moments of effective suspense (and a single, excellent jump scare), as when a police officer visits the home as Donovan and Sedgwick attempt to hide their misdeeds in plain sight. In general, you know where things are going, though—botched escape attempts, the slowly revealed madness of Sedgwick’s Gloria, and the increasingly overt threat of violence from Donovan’s George, who gets all the best lines. The loose threads wrap themselves up in tidy fashion, and the relationship between Mickey and Jules gets a logical bookend that most viewers will see coming from the opening moments.
At the end of the day, Villains is a workmanlike thriller with a pair of memorable performances and a simplistic premise that would seemingly make it an obvious choice for release via VOD or a major streaming service. That the film is receiving a nationwide theatrical release on Sept. 20, 2019, is a bit curious, perhaps due to the fact that Skarsgård will be reprising his Pennywise role in It: Chapter 2 a few weeks earlier, but Villains is ultimately charming enough to remain engaging for that short, 88-minute commitment of the audience’s attention.
Directors: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen
Writers: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen
Starring: Maika Monroe, Bill Skarsgård, Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Baumgartner
Release Date: Sept. 20, 2019
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.