Given his roles in Slumdog Millionaire, Chappie, and HBO’s The Newsroom, the last person audiences would picture as a methodical badass is Dev Patel. That’s bound to change after audiences get a glimpse of him in writer/director Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest. Designed as a mystery thriller in which no one really knows what the other intends and a narrative is set up where alliances disintegrate as quickly as they form, The Wedding Guest is all character-driven intrigue with little in the way of James Bond/Jason Bourne action, yet that doesn’t stop the film from being frequently engrossing.
Amidst bride-to-be Samira’s (Radhika Apte) pre-wedding celebration, a mysterious man (Dev Patel) arrives in the night to kidnap her. He offers her a choice: she can come with him or return to her forced marriage. Opting to leave her situation, Samira and the man embark on a journey from Pakistan into India during which a series of continuous revelations are made, complicating an already tenuous partnership.
The Wedding Guest possesses a razor-sharp narrative which never deviates from the focus. This, in conjunction with the framing of sequences, is the greatest strength of the film. In total, there are three players the story focuses on: Patel’s mystery man, whom we’ll call Jay; Apte’s Samira, and Jim Sarbh’s Deepesh, a character introduced after the first-third of the film and whose role in everything raises as many questions as answers. In keeping the story tight and the framing thoughtful, Winterbottom is able to maintain the tension the mystery-filled Wedding Guest requires. In the opening sequence, for instance, the audience observes Jay packing in an apartment. There’re no pictures, no decorations, no personalization of any kind. Here, Winterbottom either places the camera overtop the bag Jay’s packing or leaves it stationed where the lens captures the two rooms Jay walks between. Between the staging of the shots and the set design, Winterbottom conveys the purposefulness with which Jay functions. The lack of decoration communicates that Jay is not a man of sentimentality or frivolity and the camera placement serves to connect Jay’s focus on his purpose. This is amplified as all the dialogue up to the moment of the kidnapping doesn’t divulge any details as to who Jay is, his purpose, or intent. Instead, the audience is immediately thrown into Jay’s mission and is forced to wait for any specks of information leaking from dialogue or physical intonation.
Unlike creators of other cinematic mysteries where more information leads to greater clarity Winterbottom appears keen to constantly keep his audience on edge. Jay is the character we follow, yet the unreliability established in the opening sequence never breeds trust. We’re never privy to anything which someone might consider concrete about the character, making anything he does or says suspect. There is a scene in the movie trailer where Jay’s asked if he can be trusted and he answers a flat “no.” This might be the most honest Jay gets in the entire film. Placing Patel in a character profile that contrasts so much from his other work is a brilliant move by Winterbottom as it uses the emotional currency Patel’s established to assist the audience in wanting to believe the character at every turn, even when no one should. Similarly, Samira is initially positioned as a victim until more information is revealed about the nature of the kidnapping. While her own role is easily suspected, her intentions never are, even when she seems the most trustworthy. The narrative is able to maintain tension in moments as simple as people sleeping, walking through a street, or renting a car thanks to the cast constantly playing against and into audience expectations.
Strangely, the further into the film the audience gets, the less tension-filled Wedding Guest becomes, making the conclusion feel both inevitable and uneventful, as though Winterbottom began with an intriguing idea, yet wrote himself into a corner with how to develop a satisfying ending. This isn’t to suggest that the ending isn’t in any way realistic or that it goes against the design of the film itself. What occurs feels like a natural conclusion to a film rife with conspiracy, especially considering how whip-smart Patel and Apte’s performances suggest their characters to be. Perhaps it’s because Wedding Guest tricks the audience into thinking that closure takes place long before the end. Perhaps it’s because what the audience does see when the characters are unaware makes us infer intent even when the dialogue suggests otherwise, setting us up to expect something else from the ending.
Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest promises a film built on secrecy and malice, which it mostly delivers on the strength of his cast. Patel never seems at all miscast in his role as Jay, convincingly infusing his performance with confidence and control even when things appear significantly more complex than the characters intended. As his psychological sparring partner, Apte is fantastic. Like Patel, her performance leans into what audiences expect from a purported damsel, all while making Samira appear just as methodical and guarded as Jay. Even when Wedding Guest seems to lose its footing as a mystery, slipping more into a romantic drama, the performances by Patel and Apte consistently keep the audience guessing. Though the exotic locales and constant switching of languages enhance the aura of mystery, where The Wedding Guest makes its strongest impression is through Patel and Apte’s incredible chemistry. Without their performances as fuel, The Wedding Guest would be far less memorable.
In select theaters now.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.