Ever since Burn Notice and the second season of Fargo, I’ve been waiting for Jeffrey Donovan to get weird. He handled the running/jumping/falling down duties of the show admirably, but the true joy was watching him play the Identity of the Week, which was always some kind of South Florida fixer with a dinner theater accent or drag racer attitude that would fit right in between the pages of an Elmore Leonard novel. Even if his master spy hero didn’t relish summer stock, Donovan was clearly having a ball.
So it pleases me to say that Jeffrey Donovan almost runs away with Villains as a Drunk History Walt Disney… a WASP Superman in a cardigan, a smile, and a pencil mustache that just won’t quit. When he finds two armed burglars in his ‘50s sitcom hellhouse, his character, good ol’ George, calmly offers them whatever they’d like in a genteel drawl so smooth it’s practically weaponized. “You can keep that knife,” he assures the one wielding a butter knife, “if you’re keen on it.” But something’s off, especially considering whatever decade Villains takes place in. About the only thing placing it more recently than the 1970s is a car toward the end. George is a man out of time.
So is his wife, Gloria. Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer TV series, Born On The Fourth Of July 1989) plays her like an ice cold pitcher of nitroglycerin. She has the same Carousel of Progress sheen as her husband, although while he seems more than comfortable in his plastic act, she’s one missed cue away from violent combustion. If Donovan only almost makes off with the movie, it’s because Sedgwick turns Gloria into the most fractured, fascinating lost soul of the whole ensemble and does it with the least screen time of them all.
That leaves Bill Skarsgård (IT franchise, Castle Rock TV series) and Maika Monroe (It Follows 2015 – read our review here, Greta 2018 – read our review here) as Mickey and Jules, the kind of criminal couple that probably loves Bonnie and Clyde but always misses the ending to suck face. Villains opens on their latest attempt to rob a gas station. After figuring out they have to buy something to get the cash register open, they pull it off. Shame they forgot to get some actual, y’know, gas. Luckily, there’s a random house in the middle of the woods within sight of their breakdown.
We know what movie they’re in before they do, but that doesn’t make them any less fun to watch. Together, they’re a naïve reflection of their tormentors. Mickey is the one with a plan, a scheme, a hellbent way to reach the Kodachrome vacation on a Florida beach he sees every time someone knocks him unconscious. How, exactly? Who knows, but Jules does whatever she can to get him there. When he gets lost in his criminal neuroses, she lays on top of him and lets her hair hang over his face, sealing the two of them in their own little fantasy.
Skarsgård shades Mickey with a hint of Coen-era Cage. He’s a wiry hotshot who’s always Got It All Figured Out even when he forgets to explain It to everyone else. When Jules spots a potential escape route, she announces, “Holy shit!” Not one to be left out, Mickey, handcuffed to a pole, contorts himself just enough to see it and add his own, “Holy shit!” Maika Monroe has more than proven herself a welcome presence in any horror movie, but Villains finds her at her most charming, and later on, touching. When they break into a stranger’s home in broad daylight, she immediately pours herself a bowl of cereal and plops down on their couch to enjoy it. Funny in the moment, tragic in the end.
Revealing too much of what happens after they sneak in would ruin the fun. Not that there’s a cataclysmic twist hiding in Villains. The Stakelander’s Dan Berk and Robert Olsen teamed up as both co-writers and co-directors of this film, and they have a sure hand on the throttle to avoid overplaying their reveals. But the slow escalation, both of tension and ever-blackening comedy, deserves as much surprise as possible.
The violent absurdity, I expected – see above: Jeffrey Donovan doing a Drunk History Walt Disney. What I really didn’t see coming was a sad, subtle war between generations. On one end, there are two young villains who think they’re heroes. On the other, we’ve got two aging villains who’ve forgotten the difference. Besides the crime, the only thing keeping them together is reckless, limitless love. George’s sweet refrain to his wife sums it up for all of them: “Everything else is cardboard.”
Both couples have the same dream – Mickey’s mythical beach looks an awful lot like Gloria’s treasured vacation Polaroids. He knows he’ll get there because he has a plan – find and sell seashells to gift shops for pure profit with zero overhead. It’s a gilded kind of business plan that Boomers use to tantalize and poison high school students. Mickey fell for it, but doesn’t know it. When Gloria grew up, she did what she was Supposed To Do. Thirty years later, she’s showing a tied-up burglar old family photos and describing them in teary detail as she describes “dreams that never came true, but there’s still time.”
Villains doesn’t lose its cock-eyed sense of humor – cocaine is snorted like a video game power-up at one point – but the knives cut deeper than you’d expect in the third act. Young and middle-aged criminals try their damndest to escape the blood, the bodies, and the fingerprints, to run away from it all and find their own color-scorched strip of 16-millimeter sand.
In a single line, a single word even, Donovan lays out the bruised lesson of it all: “As you get older, things get… complicated.”
In Villains, watching them get that way makes for one hell of a ride.