'Villains': Film Review

Courtesy of Bill SkarsgÄrd/ALTER
A quirky crime pic that takes its lovers-on-the-lam seriously.
9/20/2019

Two young outlaws find themselves at an older couple's mercy in Dan Berk and Robert Olsen's home-invasion film.

Two amped-up lovers trying to rob their way to Florida get waylaid in Villains, stumbling into the clutches of a married couple whose own criminal career is a good deal stranger. Heightened in performance and design without quite turning its antagonists into caricatures, Robert Olsen and Dan Berk's film is neither really comedic nor as vicious as it sounds. Set someplace not terribly far from Coen Country and animated by lively performances, it should win some fans in limited theatrical release and stir interest in the duo's future projects.

Bill Skarsgard and Maika Monroe play Mickey and Jules, whose spree of robbing convenience stores and the like has not, from what we can tell, required them to actually hurt anyone. When their getaway car breaks down on a deserted road, a seemingly abandoned house beckons: a car sits in the garage, if the couple can only find the keys.

But as they rummage around, they find something disturbing in the basement: A girl (Blake Baumgartner), filthy and chained to a pipe, who won't respond to their questions or attempts to help. As they debate what to do, the child's captors come home; soon, Mickey and Jules have joined her in captivity.

George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) are an odd pair, living an alternate-reality version of mid-century domesticity on the home's ground floor. Courtly George, with his syrupy Southern drawl, tries for a spell to convince the youngsters they shouldn't worry about the "Sweetiepie" downstairs. We come to understand that Gloria's not a well woman, and George's love has led him to a lifetime of enabling her fantasies of motherhood. One part Stepford and one part Southern Gothic, Sedgwick's depiction of mental illness balances nicely with Donovan's charm. Together, they're a vision of one direction life could carry Jules and Mickey, who also behave as if their love is all that matters in a world full of cardboard people. Skarsgard and Monroe bring a spunky sweetness to the film, making the most of the script's little glimpses into the relationship, and keeping us from worrying too much that the movie would be so mean as to do its characters serious harm.

The tables turn several times here, with Berk and Olsen opening possible avenues of escape and balancing the young couple's impulse toward self-preservation with their guilt about leaving an innocent child behind. Baumgartner, a child thesp just seen in Fosse/Verdon, gets little to do here, but dynamics between the movie's four grown-ups crackle.

The picture riffs on some memorable physical comedy from Wolf of Wall Street and recalls desperadoes ranging from Thelma and Louise to Pulp Fiction's Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. But Villains has enough of its own offbeat energy not to come off as just another collection of young filmmakers' influences. Cast and crew handle heavy stuff with a light touch, keeping us from feeling manipulated, while the directors get on and off the screen as quickly as veteran stick-up artists. Here's hoping their career goes more smoothly than Jules and Mickey's.

Production companies: The Realm, Star Thrower Entertainment
Distributor: Gunpowder & Sky
Cast: Bill Skarsgard, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Baumgartner
Directors-screenwriters: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen
Producers: Garrick Dion, Allan Mandelbaum, Tim White, Trevor White
Director of photography: Matt Mitchell
Production designer: Annie Simeone
Costume designer: Stacey Berman
Editor: Sofi Marshall
Composer: Andrew Hewitt
Casting directors: Henry Russell Bergstein, Allison Estrin

R, 89 minutes