It wouldn’t be shocking if “The Wedding Guest” gets a title change before arriving in general release, but for those expecting a romantic comedy, its current moniker proves to be fitting as just one diversionary tactic of many in the latest from Michael Winterbottom. In a taut thriller full of double crosses and changing allegiances, there is no happiness to be found in Pakistan where the film is set, though a grin may start to creep across your face as it becomes obvious you wouldn’t want Jay (Dev Patel) showing up anywhere near your nuptials.
The question of who Jay is may be of primary interest at first, as you join him on a bus headed from Lahore to Faisalabad, loading up on duct tape and guns along the way, but that intrigue is quickly supplanted by why he’s there, asking around for a woman he clearly doesn’t know named Samira (Radhika Apte). With all the good will the “Slumdog Millionaire” star has engendered over the years, Patel proves to be a savvy choice as you never know of Faisal’s intentions, expecting him to be heroic in climbing over the wall of a heavily guarded compound to kidnap Samira in the dead of night, but ultimately unsure of whether he’s there to rescue her or kill her. Winterbottom keeps you guessing, even after it’s revealed Jay is part of a much larger scheme in putting the kibosh on an arranged marriage, and it is here that the adventurous writer/director’s strengths come to the fore, delivering a film reminiscent of Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things” as it fleshes out a refreshingly contemporary thriller atop the bones of an old school noir simply by changing the cultural context.
As Jay and Samira race around South Asia, you’re treated to the sights of the grand marquees to be found of New Delhi and the communal tables of Younganabad, immersing audiences in the same swirl of emotions that begin to give a grizzled pro such as Jay pause about what he’s doing as he and Samira come to rely on each other to survive, yet hardly trust one another to resist pulling the trigger if the moment calls for it. Fortunately, they never have much time to consider it and somehow, “Hell or High Water” cinematographer Giles Nuttgens manages to keep up with the star-crossed pair, always on the move, and the energy of his camerawork coupled with Harry Escott’s propulsive score are apt to keep one on their toes as much as the many twists and turns Winterbottom delivers throughout.
But the real sense of surprise comes from what might be expected of the writer/director, who has tried his hand at thrillers before such as “A Mighty Heart” and “A Killer Inside Me,” yet has never made anything this relentless, with nary an ounce of fat narratively as tantalizing breadcrumbs of a plot gradually accumulate into a quite entertaining whole. That spirit is complimented by Patel’s equally unexpected, muscular turn as Jay, proving himself to be a worthy successor to Liam Neeson should they ever reboot the “Taken” franchise, and Apte being every bit his equal as the enigmatic Samira. Although “The Wedding Guest” is every bit the breezy way to spend a spend a Saturday afternoon as you might think at first glance, it’s because it’s not what you think it’ll be that makes it so satisfying.