Writer-director Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart, The Killer Inside Me) embraces the unknown. He must, because his latest feature The Wedding Guest places audiences in the company of true blank slate named Jay (Dev Patel). But we don’t find out the man’s name early on — or, really, anything about him at all.
We’re left with a vague sense of pretense and menace. He’s quiet and calculating as he makes his way on a journey into and through Pakistan. Like Jason Bourne from the espionage series based on Robert Ludlum’s books, he’s equipped with several passports, which allow him to switch identities like rental cars (which he also cycles through routinely). By the time he reaches what we assume to be his final destination, he purchases two guns.
Winterbottom teases us into stereotyping Jay as we watch these events unfold. We assume he’s a terrorist, enacting his specific piece of some larger plot. Or, maybe, we pin him as a zealot with his own agenda.
But, eventually, we piece together that he’s headed to a wedding; that revelation comes as he cons his way past armed guards, who secure the blessed event’s venue. For all the steps involved, everything has an ingenious simplicity. Jay creates a sense of clockwork precision, ticking each phase off his doubtlessly long mental checklist.
His mission? To kidnap the bride, Samira (Radhika Apte), who is wide-eyed with fear when Jay roughly covers her mouth, zip-ties her hands behind her back and drags her away. During the abduction, he’s forced to kill a guard at the main gate — which appears to be the only deviation from Jay’s plan, and an unwelcome one at that.
But nothing is as it seems.
For the film to work, The Wedding Guest — which transplants neo-noir elements into a cacophonous desert world — needs a strong focal point, which it has in Patel. The boyishly handsome actor broke out in the Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, where he played the older version of the lead character. With his fresh face, he was perfectly cast as a goodhearted romantic, willing to go to extreme lengths for the love of his life.
Since that role, he’s operated within a similar vein, both eager and pleasing, as if fighting against the stereotypical conventions the industry might otherwise want to place on him. Here, Patel leans into those stereotypes, but with a clear understanding that he’s still defying them. He’s balancing on a delicate tightrope as he layers a stern, intense façade over the good-guy decency he’s known for. What we see of Patel in The Wedding Guest should draw comparisons to Matt Damon’s work in the Bourne franchise or John Krasinski in Amazon’s Jack Ryan series.
Truth be told, Jay bears a stronger resemblance to some of Kevin Costner’s roles — like No Way Out or, better yet, The Bodyguard — where he’s either duplicitous or conflicted; despite this, we sense that his romantic code won’t let him to do less than the right thing. Honor runs deep through these still waters.
Which is why, when it veers toward its expected noirish potential — full of cheating and divided loyalties — Winterbottom’s film pulls off a twist of its own. The Wedding Guest is not a purely plot-driven thriller with stock characters awaiting their pre-ordained comeuppance. This is ultimately a story about people caught up in sadly probable scenarios, who are simply seeking the best way out they can find. How often does a noir thriller spend time with anything verging on real drama?
It helps, I suppose, that the narrative is set in a different part of the world where the stakes are higher and escape seems futile enough that it could inspire people to attempt an elaborate ruse, like something straight out of a crime noir movie. The Wedding Guest is able to sufficiently blur the lines between art and life.
In the end, I keep coming back to Patel, whose performance I enjoyed more than anything so far in this very new year. Winterbottom may give us little to go on, but Patel shows us the heart and soul of Jay, which makes up for all the dirty deeds he may have done leading up to the moment we first meet him. (Opens Friday in Cincinnati) Rated R Grade: B+