Standing on tiptoes, the devil on my shoulder took to jabbing a pitchfork in my ear. “Wanna have a little fun?” he chortled. “Try selling your readers — both of them — on The Wedding Guest being Katherine Heigl’s magnum opus.” In less capable hands, one would have gladly played the old rom-com switcheroo gag. But why run the risk of steering audiences in the opposite direction of Michael Winterbottom’s suspense-packed film noir?
Through rain, fog, blistering sunlight, and dead of night, cinematographer Giles Nuttgens’ strong-willed, yet delicately lit lens doggedly pursued the inscrutable stranger as he journeyed from his British homeland through Pakistan and India. Funny, but Jay (Dev Patel) doesn’t exactly fit the type of “reveler en route to a wedding celebration.” Unless the bride and groom are collectors registered at a local gun boutique, it’s safe to assume the two firearms Jay stops to purchase along the way aren’t gifts.
The dialogue that opens the picture is negligible, yet there is much to observe and learn about the character in the twenty minutes or so it takes for Jay to arrive at his destination. To outsiders, Jay may look the part, but to the locals, the English-speaking British Muslim comes off as a bit of an anomaly. One particularly inquisitive soul summons the courage to ask, “Why didn’t your parents teach you Punjabi?” This is the first evidence I’ve seen of a darker side of Patel. (About Cherry never made it to San Diego.) Not only does the script call for the former “Slumdog” to puff away at a pack of butts, this time out the lad is cast as a kidnapper who doubles as a masked home invader turned stone cold killer! It’s about that time when the plot begins to unfold.
Samira (Radhika Apte) is plucked from her sleep, blindfolded, stashed in a trunk, and unable to determine whether the bullet from Jay’s gun took the life of her bodyguard. Relocated to the back seat and offered the choice of freedom to wed or staying with her captor, Samira replies, “I don’t want to be married.” Those words were enough to earn her a forged passport and a pair of flip-flops with which to begin a journey through a tightly knit web of betrayal, looped and purled with double-crossed stitching.
Michael Winterbottom has worked in just about every conceivable genre. There’s a western (The Claim); a sci-fi thriller (Code 46); a sports picture (Go Now); a literary adaptation... of sorts (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story); comedies (The Trip trilogy); romantic dramas (Jude, With or Without You); biopics (24 Hour Party People, The Look of Love), and the one-stone, two birds-killing pornographic musical, (9 Songs). I was a good 15 minutes into In This World before realizing it wasn’t a documentary. A higher compliment cannot be paid.
Having covered 80% of his work, only once did I exit a Winterbottom picture feeling battle fatigue. One hopes that even the director would be quick to assign authorship of A Mighty Heart to its producer/star/message-hurler, Angelina Jolie. It took months after the screening for feeling to finally return to my lower torso.
Though he has more than 30 novels to his credit, not one of Jim Thompson’s suspense yarns ever left the bindery with a hard cover. Too bad, because fans of hardboiled crime fiction could have used something to hold onto. There’s good reason for bringing palm to jaw when a character in a Thompson pulper takes a right to the chin: you feel it! Many of Thompson novels have been brought to the screen, but only one — Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon was based on Pop 1280 — nails down the author’s nerve-racking determination.
The reason for bringing Thompson to the dance is to remind viewers that this is not Winterbottom’s first crime thriller — that distinction goes to I Want You. He went on to tackle no less than Thompson’s unfilmable masterwork, The Killer Inside Me, with mixed results. (Casey Affleck made as convincing a Lou Ford as Daniel Craig did James Bond.) Somewhere in the stratosphere, Jim Thompson is looking down and smiling on his protege.
Imagine Apte playing Jane Greer opposite Patel’s John Garfield. Like any fatalistic noir worth its black salt, the devil is in the detailed itinerary. The odyssey will climax light years from whence it began, along the way encountering more twists and turns than a whirling dervish in a pleated skirt. Spoiler alert: crime does pay. And so should you — at least for a bargain show — when this opens Friday at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinema and Angelika Carmel Mountain.