The Wedding Guest
Few filmmaking careers are as unpredictable as that of director Michael Winterbottom. The restlessly experimental Brit seems to go out of his way to make wildly diverging projects every time he steps behind a camera, ranging from the X-Rated artiness of 9 Songs to his decidedly unsexy The Trip trilogy about two middle-aged comedians eating food and annoying each other. His latest feature, The Wedding Guest, is another departure from everything else he’s done. It’s a mysterious modern noir set in Pakistan and India with Dev Patel playing a brooding hired gun.
The movie opens in motion and always attempts to leave the audiences a few steps behind wherever the hell it’s going. Jay (Dev Patel) wanders off a plane and through the streets of Pakistan, speaking with a heavy Cockney accent and unable (but also not particularly interested in) communicating with the locals. He says he’s there for a wedding, but also buys a gun and duct tape, which aren’t particularly conventional wedding gifts. Little dialogue is spoken during a rush of intriguing images of an underworld that’s never quite explained. Shooting on the streets with handheld cameras and what appears to be a vast cast of unwitting extras, Winterbottom creates a wonderfully mysterious atmosphere dripping with dread.
Eventually, Jay finds his way to the bride-to-be (Radhika Apte) and takes her at gunpoint. He’s even forced to kill someone in the escape. After that, the twists keep coming, the lies pile up, and the nature of the characters seems constantly in flux. While the film almost feels fresh based on the environment and telling, it really couldn’t be more old-fashioned in terms of storytelling style. The is a fairly traditional film noir, just shot in color and in newer countries than the genre has seen before. The lack of trust, the consistent mystery, the questionable morality, the doomed romance, and the refusal to provide any sort of answers all qualify as noir tropes. Even the characters fit into stock genre types. The only thing different is the setting, and the way that alters the murky politics to something more contemporary. Otherwise, Winterbottom is playing along with conventions.
That’s where the problems lie. For as fascinating, gripping, and secretive as The Wedding Guest can feel at first, it gets really predictable really quickly once you realize what type of story you’re watching. The acting remains stellar and the film always looks fantastic. It just gets rather dull as you sit back and slowly watch all the expected beats hit at all the expected times. That makes it tough to recommend to most viewers. At a certain point, you essentially have to give up on the story growing into something as surprising and layered as the opening and just focus on the performances and pretty pictures. The rest is pretty hollow.
The good news is that, as with any Michael Winterbottom misfire, all you have to do is accept the failings and wait six months until he makes something completely different that hopefully comes together a little better.