Sometimes, when watching a movie like Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart, it’s an interesting exercise to wonder what it might be like for a normal person to stumble into one of David Lynch’s highly stylized cinematic worlds. Someone for whom the midcentury décor, kinky sexual escapades, and disturbing violence is miles away from their understanding of the world. Someone who might react to a seductive, screwed-up Isabella Rossellini not with intrigue, but with perfectly understandable confusion and fear.
In its best moments, Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s Villains operates on this level, as a self-aware sendup of 80s and 90s neo-noir classics. At times, it plays like a daffy mix of Lynch and True Romance. Its actors are very game, willing to accompany the script to some deliciously bizarre places. It’s a lot of fun when its tonally inconsistent script isn’t muddying the waters.
Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are lovers and small-time crooks. When we meet them, they’re making their way down to Florida to start a new life, funding their venture by robbing gas stations on the way there. When their car breaks down after a score, the pair decide to break in to a nearby house to steal a new ride. As you might expect, they choose the wrong house. The owners, George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) are anything but the straight-laced, wholesome couple they appear to be. Their home holds some freaky secrets, and when Mickey and Jules uncover them, it becomes clear that George and Gloria don’t plan to let the couple leave alive. But before they dispatch their victims, this homicidal husband and wife are going to have some fun with their prey.
Villains is violent, goofy fun for most of its running time, with the humor often relying on Mickey and Jules’ relatable reactions to the bizarre, heightened world that George and Gloria live in. Skarsgård, in particular, makes a great straight man to Donovan and Sedgwick’s insane characters. When Gloria dons a can-can dress, corset and Dorothy Vallens-style wig to seduce a captive Mickey, Skarsgård’s reaction is priceless in its simultaneously horrified and confused look. Monroe also throws some excellent physicality into her performance, sometimes squeezing herself through tight spaces, or flopping her body comically across the floor.
The movie’s MVP, however, is Donovan, unquestionably. His George has a genial southern drawl, always acting with a demeanor of complete gentility and control, even in his most intense moments. Sedgwick’s Gloria is clearly off the deep end, but George is just collected enough to tether her. He indulges her whims, comforts her, and gives her a (relatively) safe space in which to operate. And it’s a job he’s happy to do. Killing interlopers and getting rid of the bodies is just a fun perk. Donovan’s ability to combine his utterly nuts behavior with matter-of-fact explanation makes for some of the movie’s best punchlines.
In its last third, however, Villains loses its handle by taking a turn toward the serious. The balance between parody and honest-to-goodness stakes in a thriller like this is a tough one to keep, especially when there isn’t a larger theme cohering the whole enterprise. As the story starts to move away from its more self-aware elements, it seems like Berk and Olsen just aren’t quite sure how to stick the landing. The abrupt tonal shift digs into some story elements that haven’t been developed to the extent they need to in order to give that transition the weight it requires, and still remains committed to the campy atmosphere in a way that no longer seems appropriate by that point.
Ultimately, Villains is still a very fun exercise in genre and lets its performers go hog wild in exploring the comedic possibilities of its wacko characters. There are some standout moments that make the film worth experiencing, and it displays total commitment from every angle, from the performances to the impeccable set design and costumes. Villains isn’t the most consistent movie out there, but it’s still a fully entertaining ride, and a great-looking deconstruction of the stylized movies it’s aping. Come ready for a creepy good time, and that’s exactly what you’ll get.