Dan Berk and Robert Olsen certainly aren’t the first to observe that one person’s grand romantic gesture could be utterly grotesque to someone else in their agreeably perverse third feature “Villains,” but they find new ways to take it to another level with the love story of Jules (Maika Monroe) and Mickey (Bill Skarsgard). A couple on the lam after they stuff their pockets full of $20 bills in a convenience store robbery that wasn’t well thought out. the two may lack criminal know-how, but they make up for it with trust for each other, to the point that Jules can’t even get angry when poor Mickey fails to get enough gas to get to the next town, leaving them in the middle of rural territory where the rich who want to get away from the world have wooden retreats. Sensing one such place to be a second home with no current occupant, they break in and pour themselves a bowl of cereal and snort a line of coke to ponder what’s next.
The casualness surrounding Jules and Mickey’s ever-growing list of criminal offenses becomes endearing, particularly as you see the two individually do the wrong things to do right by their partner, with Jules apt to pin her partner down to give him a “car wash” (which involves a tongue bath and covering his peripheral vision with her long blonde hair) when he feels like he’s let her down. They’re weirdoes to be sure, but they accept each other completely, which also happens to be true of George and Gloria (Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick), the current tenants of the house who should probably freak out upon discovering that the pair of twenty somethings have breached their locks yet seem oddly serene about it when they walk in to find them. As Berk and Olsen slowly reveal, they may have no business being there either and when the two couples go to increasingly extreme lengths to stay – not necessarily in this specific house, but on this earthly plain in general – the individual pairs bring out the best in each other while doing the worst to one another.
Although the tete-a-tete between Jules and Mickey and George and Gloria creates its own momentum, the film’s liveliness also emerges from an impressive degree of craft, both in front of and behind the camera as well as a tight, sharp-as-a-tack script from Berk and Olsen. The production and costume design by Annie Simeone and Stacey Berman, respectively, create a cohesive hyperreality inside the ‘50s era home where vibrant colors are thrown off left and right yet there’s still a feeling of emptiness, reflective at first of how the two couples attempt to distract each other with their outrageous behavior from what they know to be really going on, but then would seem to suggest the hole that continues to lead them to take such desperation action.
No one appears to be having a better time onscreen than Donovan, who obviously relishes playing a dapper southern dandy, but the rest of the cast is not far behind, whether it’s Sedgwick, who gives Gloria a real sadness to go with a zeal to have some kind of companionship, Monroe, who radiates an effervescence as Jules that suggests a negative thought has never passed through her head despite the poor cards she’s been dealt and Skarsgard strikes the right note as the well-meaning but dimwitted Mickey, never being so daft that you can’t root for him – in fact, even knowing what nefarious acts he’s committed, you still do, thanks to a free-wheeling charisma. Which is true of “Villains” as a whole — your conscience may tell you everyone is up to no good, but it’s too much devious fun not to enjoy.
“Villains” will screen at SXSW on March 13th at 5:45 pm at the Atom Theater at the Austin Convention Center.