SXSW Review: ‘Villains’ is a Wickedly Delightful Thriller

Villains Cover Image.jpg

The film was screened for the SXSW 2019. This review contains some spoilers.

As with every festival, sometimes it’s better knowing absolutely nothing about a film going in. No logline, no trailers, no early reviews, just a film badge and some modest appeal. A degree of uncertainty pervades early morning screenings, and general buzz from a prior screening can occasionally be a fluke, so in situations like these, you might as well get comfy in those Alamo Drafthouse seats, order some breakfast, and hope for the best. Fortunately, I was lucky to enter Villains completely fresh, and I found myself completely taken by the film’s wickedly delightful thriller elements, enough so to melt my surroundings and forget all hesitations.

Directed by Robert Olsen and Dan Berk, Villains caught audiences by total surprise in the best way possible. Simply put, it’s the story of a Bonnie and Clyde pair who are caught in the clutches of a far more dangerous couple with a house full of deadly secrets. Villains gracefully introduces its main characters, Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe), under the context of their motivations and desires within the first two shots of the film. It’s a proficient approach that wastes no time endearing our anti-heroes to the audience. Although they behave as outlaws, their youthful affection for each other keeps us rooting for them at every turn. After bungling a robbery, their dreams of escaping to the sunny and carefree beaches of Florida are put on hold when they encounter George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgewick) during a supply run break-in. Having stumbled upon a horrible secret, it becomes a question of whether or not they can escape with their lives at all as they are ensnared by the sinister couple. 

It’s not unusual for many films like Villains making their way to the festival circuit to boast a stacked cast. It’s far rarer to find a film that utilizes their talent so very effectively. Maika Monroe has found a role with plenty of room to explore personality, allowing her to be as feisty as she is heartfelt with Jules’ liveliness complimented by a deeper emotional side. Her past tragedy is subtly woven into the plot without coming to define her character. It’s clear Monroe is amply capable of embodying multidimensional leads and in this role in particular she shines. Bill Skarsgård is her equal match, a chameleon of a man able to inhabit perfectly the sweet, slightly goofy personality of Mickey. He has something of a young Leo Dicaprio heartthrob look going on, with greased hair and bright eyes. Monroe and Skarsgård share an unexpectedly delightful chemistry, playing off each other constantly. Their relationship is the light soul of this dark comedy, both with a high aptitude for quick banter and physical humor. Their bumbling antics and drug habit somehow enhance the charm of these two lovers on the lam.

The other perfect duo at play is Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgewick. Donovan is impeccably cast as the sociopathic antithesis to Mickey, a proper southern gentleman whose genial surface conceals venomous intentions. Even as he explains his plans to murder Jules and Mickey, his smooth drawl is seductively ensnaring beneath a well-kept pencil mustache. George’s personality is a welcome break from Donovan’s typecasting as a trigger-happy tough guy,  and trading it in for a devious and sophisticated villain. Kyra Sedgewick sells the unhinged, bizarre domestic housewife persona, which proves to be just as creepy as her husband.  In spite of her cruel intentions, there is a hint of sympathy in certain moments, as delusional and maniacal as she is. George and Gloria are the older foils to our star crossed protagonists; what Mickey would become if he continued down a path of selfish delinquency and what Jules would become if she never became independent. They are both instances of codependency, driven by their devotion for one another.

Olsen and Berk are seriously committed to the arcs of their characters, with a deep understanding of who they are at the beginning, and how they will change by the film’s conclusion.  It’s obvious a great deal of thought went into their individual moralities, and how their endings needed to play out in order to satisfy the narrative. The witty and original writing addresses some of the unavoidable clichés and gags of the genre with creative solutions. Villains could never have existed as a product of a corporate writers’ room or a heavily produced studio film. It carries a tight collaborative spirit between the two directors and the  creative talents in front of and behind the camera.  

Villains relishes in its visuals, taking great care with every element on screen. The shots themselves are filled with a love for the characters, paying close attention to their actions and expressions. A personal favorite instance is the inventive ‘carwash’ shot, where Jules drapes her long hair over Mickey’s head, creating an intimate tunnel where they look in each other’s eyes and the rest of the world  fades away. Loving, inventive shots like this drive home the tenderness between the characters while simultaneously making their relationship memorable for the audience. Villains is also an instance of a collaborative melding between cinematography and design. Although the film is set in modern day, it plays with a timeless  aesthetic wherever it can. The costumes, the production design, the music, and more all harken to the 60s and 80s. It’s a mashup of retro stylings that give George and Gloria’s home an air of personality. The film matches primary colors and patterns  with the character clothing, walls, and furniture, emitting an idyllic uneasiness much like a dollhouse with their victims akin to playthings.  The vision shared by Olsen and Berk and their creative team isn’t just an aesthetic choice, it’s invaluable to the plot.

While it’s not without its quirks and wrinkles, Villains is a big revelation for SXSW. It strikes a healthy balance between building tension and cracking jokes without placating the viewer or patting itself on the back. On top of this, the film sincerely endears an audience to its characters. It bookends their arcs in a lovely manner that unexpectedly strikes emotion, and it’s a testament to the devoted collaboration at all levels. At a nimble and bold 89 minutes, Villains is an exceedingly worthwhile watch. Without doubt I will be returning to this one as a ‘comfort food’ film for a long time, and I have high hopes for it to win over many more audiences as well.