You know how, sometimes, you’ll watch a movie with characters so unlikable that you can’t root for anyone? You might expect a movie like Robert Olsen and Dan Berk’s Villains to be one of these, which is why it’s so surprising when it’s the exact opposite. Pitting two petty thieves, a dollar-store version of Bonnie and Clyde, against a pair of psychopaths is not a typical recipe for likeability, but with very strong casting and a whip-smart and funny script, it works.
Mickey (Bill Skarsgard) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are two naive, petty criminals in love. They’re knocking off gas stations to fund their dream: a relocation to Florida, where they’ll set up a business selling seashells on the beach. After a successful heist, they run out of gas on a desolate road and are forced to break into a nearby home to find another vehicle. When they do, they encounter a young, wordless girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained up in the basement. Jules’s immediate impulse is to try and save the girl, but they’re caught in the act by the homeowners, George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) who will do anything to keep their secret, well, secret.
Mickey and Jules’ love shines through in every one of their interactions. Skarsgard, more known for playing creepshows like in IT, plays against type here with a kind of jovial earnestness that’s impossible not to love. Monroe, too, who I know more from sullen teenager roles in It Follows and The Guest, shows a ton of range here, matching Skarsgard, Donovan, and Sedgwick on every perfectly-timed line. Donovan and Sedgwick are just the right kind of charming and menacing and play off of one another in a very unique way. Their twisted love, too, is apparent from their scenes together. That’s a credit both to Berk and Olsen’s witty, jovial script and the electric chemistry from the four leads.
The momentum changes frequently in Villains, as both couples swap the upper hand in the tenuous situation. It’s a power dynamic that shifts constantly, which keeps the story interesting throughout the film. Jules, George, Mickey, and Gloria battling for control and survival for their entire time on screen makes for a madcap experience that’s guaranteed to keep viewers guessing and engaged. As both couples formulate plans, only to see them go hilariously awry, the tension just keeps ratcheting up. The last few minutes of the film let the underlying and curious sweetness that runs through Villains rise to the surface, and caps off the experience by letting the film show its heart (maybe literally?).
The setting of George and Gloria’s house has to do a lot of heavy lifting, since the majority of the Villains’s 88 minutes is spent there. It’s beautifully designed, feeling like a setting trapped in the 50s or 60s (which is hilariously remarked on when Mickey notices the ancient television set) with lots of natural light. With the four characters moving about the house, often separately, using a well-lit setting like this helps to keep everyone’s locations straight. The time-capsule feel mirrors Donovan and Sedgwick’s portrayals of a 1950’s Southern gentleman and his repressed housewife in an interesting way (especially when those portrayals are subverted). It’s refreshing to see a film like this discard the usual Gothic visual motifs. It works well to make Villains appear even more modern and distinctive than it already does.
A claustrophobic story with lots of twists, Villains might not pack a ton of scares into its running time, but balances that with a buttload of tension that doesn’t let up for a second. Berk and Olsen have brought together four underrated actors and let them loose in a setting that allows them all to work together in unexpected ways. Villains is a fun, crazy experience that begs to be consumed with an audience of raucous horror fans. Try to find one when the film comes to theatres.
Robert Olsen and Dan Berk’s Villains, starring Maika Monroe, Bill Skarsgard, Kyra Sedgwick, and Jeffrey Donovan, will be released in theatres nationwide on September 20.