Ah, the black comedy. A film genre that so many filmmakers attempt but so few succeed at. There is something about merging comedic elements with dark and dismal subject matter that proves daunting for many a filmmaker. It takes a special kind of director (or in Villains‘ case, directors) to nail the tone of a black comedy. Luckily, Robert Olsen and Dan Berk seem to have a pretty good understanding of what makes a successful one. Villains is a welcome serving of pure batshit insanity that will have you laughing as often as you find yourself cringing.
Mickey (Bill Skarsgård, It, Hulu’s Castle Rock) and Jules (Maika Monroe, It Follows, The Guest) are lovers on the run, headed southbound for a fresh start in the Sunshine State. When their car runs out of gas after they rob a gas station (the irony is not lost on them), they break into a nearby house looking for a new set of wheels. Little do they know that the house is owned by a psychopathic pair of homeowners (The Closer‘s Kyra Sedgwick and Burn Notice‘s Jeffrey Donovan) who discover the outlaws raiding their kitchen.
Then they go into the basement and shit gets weird.
Villains is a film where the less you know going into it, the better.
While not filled to the brim with surprises, the first act features enough of them that you’ll want to go in as blindly as possible to get the full effect of their shock value. Villains is sick, twisted and absolutely bonkers. While never outright scary, it features enough thrills to quench any horror fan’s thirst for excitement.
None of this would be possible without Villains‘ excellent cast. There are not enough words to describe just how remarkable a group of actors Olsen and Berk have assembled. Monroe, who has been good but not great in most of her projects (she is a very good actress but always seems to pick low-energy roles), is the most charismatic she’s ever been and practically runs away with the movie. Her Jules is a lovable spitfire. Not to be outdone, Skarsgård gives Mickey a goofily endearing quality and delivers some of the film’s funniest moments, especially when it comes to his facial expressions (anyone who wonders how he got the part of Pennywise should watch Villains for that answer or, you know, It). Mickey and Jules are two characters that could have easily been played as despicable, but Monroe and Skarsgård imbue them with such warmth and earnestness that you can’t help but be won over (think Clarence and Alabama from True Romance). You buy into their romance and want to see these them escape the situation they’ve found themselves in.
As for our demented homeowners, Donovan’s George is the epitome of subdued lunacy. Always calm, cool and collected (he used to be an expert salesman, after all), you never feel like you know the extent of his madness. Reminiscent of Kathy Bates in Misery, Donovan is as terrifying as he is hilarious. Sedgwick, meanwhile, is serving up some serious unhinged Stepford wife realness under a bright and sunny demeanor that simply has to be seen to be believed. It’s an instance of casting against type that pays off in spades. More roles like this for her, please. Unfortunately, Sedgwick does have the least screen time out of the quartet. It would have been nice to get a little more of her character, especially when you consider the hints of backstory we get about her.
The actors are all great, but Villains is really a marked achievement for Olsen and Berk. Working from their own screenplay, Villains blends several different genres together with ease. Be it a crime thriller, a romance or a home invasion film, it pulls them off with aplomb. That the film is as successful as it is rather surprising, considering that the duo’s only notable film before this is Stake Land II: The Stakelanders. They also work in some clever camera tricks and inventive shots (one involving a laundry shoot feels it was plucked straight out of a Wes Anderson film) that help play into the film’s overall kookiness.
Villains is set almost entirely in one location (the gas station and the street in the opening scenes being the only other two), giving it a claustrophobic feel as Mickey and Jules devise a plan to escape their captors. Olsen and Berk lay out the geography of the house fairly well so you always know who is where, making for some fun cat-and-mouse sequences. The house itself is decorated like something out of the 1950s, complete with lots of bright colors and vintage televisions sets. The jovial set design juxtaposes nicely with the more serious goings-on of the plot.
If a complaint were to be made, it would be that the third act doesn’t fully live up to the craziness present in the first two. Rather than going bigger, Villains achieves peak crazy in the second act and opts for a quieter, more emotionally resonant climax to end its story. It’s jarring at first and the pacing of the film suffers as a result, but upon some reflection it actually works in its characters’ favor, giving everyone involved a nice note to end on.
Villains is a hoot and a half. It opens with a manic energy that never lets up for the duration of its 88-minute runtime. Boasting four fabulous performances, a pitch-perfect tone and a rather bright and sunny aesthetic, Villains is not to be missed when it gets released. Here’s hoping it can find a distributor sooner rather than later. It would be a shame to see this get the VOD treatment, as it practically begs to be seen with a crowd.
Villains had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 9, 2019, and is currently seeking distribution.