[TIFF 2018] REVIEW: ‘The Wedding Guest’ is a well-shot but aimless crime drama

 Dev Patel stars in  The Wedding Guest , directed by Michael Winterbottom.

Dev Patel stars in The Wedding Guest, directed by Michael Winterbottom.

If you’re going to make a road movie, Michael Winterbottom’s your man. The maker of the three seasons of The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, which were also edited into feature-length films, Winterbottom has a knack for putting characters in cars and seeing what happens. He also has a strength for teasing out the different emotions that come up on long journeys. In The Trip, the comedy is cut with melancholy, and in Winterbottom’s new film The Wedding Guest, the tension of a clandestine escape is folded together with bits of romance.

To its credit, the film trusts the audience to work things out as we go along. We follow a young man known as Jay (Dev Patel) as he methodically travels from England to a remote area of Pakistan. Upon arrival, he rents a series of cars, buys semi-automatic pistols, and stocks up on duct tape. But instead of the story these actions suggest – that of a young Muslim man from a Western country joining up with a terror group - Jay is heading to a wedding. His goal is to kidnap Samira, the bride-to-be (Radhika Apte), and spirit her away to the waiting boyfriend that her family doesn’t approve of.

This exact combination of relationships doesn’t really conform to a particular genre, so it’s intriguing to watch as Winterbottom takes pieces of crime thrillers, relationship dramas, and the aforementioned road movie and assembles them into a new structure. Sadly, the film can’t do a whole lot with it – with the kidnapping of Apte’s character out of the way, one expects a chase to begin and introduce some Bourne-style manoeuvres into the plot, but the film spools out with Jay and Samira merely moving on from place to place, with little urgency or motivation.

The addition of Samira’s boyfriend (Jim Sarbh) offers some tension, though he mostly exists to introduce the closest thing the movie has to a message. His treatment of Samira, and his willingness to dump her as soon as his escape plan gets out of control, focuses our attention on Samira’s lack of agency. She’s been moved around against her will her whole life, and the latter half of the movie slowly becomes a story of Samira learning how to take the reins.

Which is all well and good, but the film doesn’t encourage us to cheer her on. We’re not given much evidence of her unhappiness with her family, and so she comes across as impulsive and entitled. Later on, she reacts inexplicably cold about a violent act perpetrated by Jay, and it’s hard to tell how we’re supposed to feel about it. Then, despite being given many opportunities to part ways, Samira and Jay drift into something resembling a romance, though they have very little chemistry (unless evidence of it got buried in one of the many travelling montages). It adds up to be a rather uninspiring amount of character work, with no clear purpose.

At the world premiere, the filmmakers and cast explained how they consciously avoided revealing much about Jay: what his background is, why he wants to risk his life for a couple he doesn’t know, what he intends to do next. While it’s true that this keeps the film from weighing itself down with exposition, or taking the focus away from Samira, all it really accomplishes is to turn Jay into a cipher. This would be fine if there was some sort of clear external threat to Jay (turning the movie into more of survival story), but with no visible enemies, it’s hard to care about him – he ends up reading as more of a sociopath than anything else.

The film does offer some technical pleasures: it’s shot on location, in available light, which gives the proceedings a documentary feel and brings out the little details about Pakistan and India that might have been obscured by a large production. The score by Harry Escott is also quite good, helping enhance the drama when the script isn’t giving the film much to work with.

Unfortunately for Winterbottom, Patel and Apte, this release isn’t likely to create much buzz, either positive or negative. But I’m all for Winterbottom trying again – he’s always seemed like a fun guy to travel with.

The Wedding Guest gets two stars out of four.

 
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Stray thoughts

  • The diamonds introduced part-way through the film seem like they might build some much-needed tension, but they’re largely ignored.
  • The opening of this film suggests that Winterbottom could make a solid spy film if he tried.
  • The film might have benefitted from following both Jay and Samira on their separate, very different routes to Pakistan.