Movie Review: The Wedding Guest (2018)

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A man with one name who might just as well be a man with no name, in writer-director Michael Winterbottom's self-described "eastern Western," Dev Patel gives a rivetingly against type performance as the enigmatic eponymous wedding guest, Jay.

Traveling from Britain to Pakistan with a stack of passports and a look of steely determination, like a cross between Clint Eastwood and Antonioni's The Passenger, Jay grows all the more alarming as he acquires weapons, duct tape, and multiple getaway vehicles under different aliases during his long drive to the Punjab.

Though we're instantly suspicious of his first of many cover stories and identities, there's something about Patel's manner and his brief interactions with strangers that make us want to trust him, even after the real reason for his trip is revealed when he crosses paths with Radhika Apte's bride-to-be Samira in a burst of violence.

Embarking on a veritable tour of India after Jay's carefully laid plans fall apart, we find ourselves equally curious about a character we discover is no typical damsel in distress as the two get lost in the hustle and bustle of the crowd and the overwhelming beauty of the deserts, cliffs, and beaches of the region.

The very definition of a film where the less we know going in the better, having marvelously sustained suspense throughout a taut nail biter of a first act, Winterbottom refuses to let us catch our breath until his main characters are able to do the same.

Reveling in the intimacy of close quarters and the instant tentative bond that develops when we connect with someone a long way from home against the backdrop of the unknown, although the film ratchets up the tension, the chemistry between the two leads leaves something to be desired.

Drawn to the more dominant Patel, it took a second viewing to better able to appreciate Apte's aloof, playful turn as Samira as well as the way that in Guest's tight frames early on, the duo's subtle body language foreshadows the good and bad of what's to come.

And although the film fascinates from start to finish, contrasting Wedding's superior, propulsive first half with its last, we can't help but feel slightly disappointed by its lags in rhythm, which give the impression that — whether left on the cutting room floor or in a getaway car — a much needed twist or two was lost along the way.

From Thomas Hardy adaptations and biopics to existential comedic journeys and social dramas, The Wedding Guest is a daring work from a filmmaker whose career has been impossible to predict.

Yet while on the surface it might seem like a departure for Winterbottom, thematically speaking it lines right up with his interests as the latest in a long line of diverse films about people who find themselves tested in ways they weren't expecting — frequently on foreign lands.

An actor's director, Michael Winterbottom employs the same character-centric storytelling in his scripts as a writer, which takes on a "you are here" approach in the case of his decade in the making Guest.

Not bothering to serve up much in the way of background in the hopes of knocking down the fourth wall and fooling us into believing we've stumbled onto scenes from real life (whether period or contemporary), Guest is the closest Winterbottom has gotten to a true genre picture in years.

An action turned road movie as imagined by Antonioni or Wenders, Winterbottom’s living, breathing eastern Western grabs us in an extended opening sequence that's designed to thrill.

Elevating Patel from supporting player to true leading man status, Guest is augmented by the actor's silence and the way we can see worlds of pain and intrigue in his eyes that beg to be explored in greater detail, even if, as Winterbottom understands, this man of few words and one name would never reveal it.

A breakthrough feature for the lead actor and an unexpected foray for the filmmaker, throughout Guest, I found myself hoping Winterbottom might take a cue from his Trip trilogy and pen another installment of this clever play on genre expectations.

While the film's eventual segue from action to romantic travelogue begins to falter roughly fifteen minutes before its seemingly abrupt final shot, by that point, we're so invested in Patel's plight (as well as the textured, sensual cinematography by Hell or High Water and Colette DP Giles Nuttgens) that we'll happily follow Winterbottom's Guest anywhere.

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