Synopsis – A story centered on a mysterious British Muslim man (Dev Patel) on his journey across Pakistan and India.
My Take – For years, director Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart) has maintained knack of jumping between different genres, but if you’re going to make a road film, he is the one to do the right job. After all he is the creator of The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, whose three season series were also edited into feature-length films.
While the series existed to show off Coogan’s and Brydon’s improvisational skills and dueling impressions, he has shown his strength for teasing out the different emotions that come up on long journeys, all of course while capturing the lush romance of different European countries.
Here in his 27th feature film, we find the filmmaker journeying from Pakistan to India in a cross-country affair that feels both familiar and rote in its attempt to underline the unique tensions between the two countries. Sadly, his latest endeavor, is a lesser effort despite its intentions.
While it’s true that a few aspects of this film work as a thriller, the rest simply falls short of its goal. In my opinion, a thriller should have me sitting on the edge of the seat awaiting what happens next, but, despite the freshness of the setting, the film is, at its core, a conventional journey filled with a cliché-ridden love story that doesn’t do justice to the themes at hand.
The story follows Jay (Dev Patel), a British-raised Indian Muslim, who despite the language barrier flies into Pakistan and heads into a small dusty town, as a guest for an upcoming wedding. However, following the purchase of guns, and duct tape, Jay embarks on his true mission of kidnapping the intended bride, Samira (Radhika Apte).
While an unprecedented moment of violence complicates his plan, he successfully manages to speed away into the night, with Samira bound, gagged, and hooded in the trunk of his car. Once he reaches the city, Jay informs her about being hired by Deepish (Jim Sarbh), her British Indian boyfriend to carry out this job, and gives her a choice to get down at Karachi or support him in helping them reach New Delhi where Deepish awaits her.
However things go topsy turvy when Deepish gets cold feet as the kidnapping begins to get international media coverage, and counter-offers Jay to drive her back instead for more money. Adding to the complications Samira and Jay start getting attracted to each other, all leading to a deadly turn.
Here, the film keeps us purposefully on our toes and guessing for a long time. Frankly, one-third into the film, I had no idea who was who or what the big picture was. But then it started to make sense, slowly but surely. And before I realized it, the film had also taken quite a different direction that what I had anticipated.
Honestly, director Winterbottom deserves some credit for keeping exposition and pat psychology to a minimum. He’s more concerned with actions than backstory, which provides the film with enough base-level mystery to ensure that it’s gripping for at least at the start.
The film benefits from how little it initially tells us about the characters; but once it begins to explicate their motives, the luster begins to fade. With the kidnapping of Samira out of the way, one expects a chase to begin and introduce some full paced-style man oeuvres into the plot, but the film spools out with Jay and Samira merely moving on from place to place, with little urgency or motivation.
Michael Winterbottom both wrote and directed this film, and it would be insightful to gain a sense of what went into its creation. What is it about this particular story, of a British Muslim hired to kidnap a woman in Pakistan that intrigued him? Perhaps it is the concept of delving into modern, global noir a hard-boiled, tension-filled tale set against the backdrop of cities and rural towns in Pakistan. It’s an intriguing concept, yet the result simply does not work especially as the story never coalesces into anything above ordinary.
There are some good ideas here and maybe in a different setting, they could work. Director Winterbottom has always been fascinated by unexplored worlds, and the photography here does give us a luscious look at a Pakistan and India both at odds with each other, but also eerily complimentary in their colorfully rich traditions.
The crowded merchant streets are beautifully enhanced by Giles Nuttgens, encompassing a whirlwind of vibrant hues and lights along with Harry Escott’s score that absorb the viewer. But like I said, all of it amounts to very, very little.
The film could possibly work as a contemporary Western but in a different country altogether, but here, the characters of Samira and Jay are shockingly underdeveloped, robbing the plot developments of any real power. The insights into Jay’s own life before this moment are few and far between and his motivations for agreeing to be part of this convoluted kidnapping are never clear. He is a man of mystery, but unfortunately, the mysteries are never clarified.
This is also true of Samira, whose motives become increasingly muddled as the film moves towards its somber end. The addition of Samira’s boyfriend Deepish offers some tension, though he mostly exists to introduce the closest thing the film has to a message. His treatment of Samira, and his willingness to dump her as soon as his escape plan gets out of control, focuses our attention on Samira’s lack of agency. She’s been moved around against her will her whole life, and the latter half of the film slowly becomes a story of Samira learning how to take the reins.
Which is all well and good, but the film doesn’t encourage us to cheer her on. We’re not given much evidence of her unhappiness with her family, and so she comes across as impulsive and entitled. Later on, she reacts inexplicably cold about a violent act perpetrated by Jay, and it’s hard to tell how we’re supposed to feel about it.
Then, despite being given many opportunities to part ways, Samira and Jay drift into something resembling a romance, though they have very little chemistry. It adds up to be a rather uninspiring amount of character work, with no clear purpose.
As expected, the performances are exceptional here. Dev Patel, as always excels in his role, while Radhika Apte manages to holds her own against him, while channeling her character’s gentle facade for secretive, ulterior ends. Jim Sarbh also adds another astounding performance to his growing filmography. On the whole, ‘The Wedding Guest’ is a flat thriller pulled down by its mundane screenplay and requisite tropes.
Directed – Michael Winterbottom
Rated – R
Run Time – 97 minutes