The Wedding Guest is a cool character thriller
The cool, efficient thriller The Wedding Guest, written and directed by Michael Winterbottom, opens with Jay (Dev Patel) journeying from London to Lahore. As he travels to his final destination, in India, he makes various stops—to pick up rental cars (plural), purchase guns (plural), as well as duct tape, and a suitcase—along the way. It is clear he is up to something, and what that something is soon becomes clear. Jay breaks into a guarded house and kidnaps Samira (Radhika Apte). He binds her hands, tapes her mouth shut, puts a hood over her head, and then stuffs her into the trunk of his rental car.
It is eventually revealed that Jay is operating on behalf of Deepesh (Jim Sarbh), who loves Samira; she was about to be married to someone else. When Jay asks Samira: does she want to be with Deepesh or go back to her family and the arranged marriage, her answer propels the film forward. The characters travel across India in cars, buses, and trains arranging a rendezvous or planning an escape. However, when Samira’s abduction makes the news, the threat of them being captured becomes real.
If the “chase” storyline is the weakest element in The Wedding Guest, it does provide the film’s strength, which is immersing viewers in the streets, hotels (both seedy and fancy), and underground shops in India. As Jay buys cell phones, meets a contact who can forge passports, or relaxes in a luxury hotel pool, viewers can practically choke on the atmosphere. (Harry Escott’s pulsating soundtrack also keeps the film moving and creates a sense of urgency.)
Things get more intriguing once the plot is fixed and the film can build its drama. Watching Jay contact Deepesh and indicate where to meet him so he can arrive unseen is nifty, and when Jay and Samira share a bed in a hotel room, they both have their one eye on the other for different reasons. Winterbottom raises issues of trust, money, and love as he suggests the three main characters may be using each another to get what they want as the story plays out.
Even when the film boxes itself into a corner—it contrives at least one situation that requires tricky extrication—it forces viewers to recalibrate what they think or know about the characters. Yes, it’s best to leave what transpires in The Wedding Guest vague, because the pleasure of Winterbottom’s film is watching Jay, Samira, and Deepesh struggle with every decision point. Is Jay, who seems to be so careful, in complete control? Will Samira, who is treated like a pawn through most of the film, find freedom or agency? And what is Deepesh’s end game?
Winterbottom does not provide as much depth or nuance in answering those questions, which is a drawback, but his film is compelling nonetheless. Jay is enigmatic throughout much of the film, and while Dev Patel is mesmerizing to watch, he is largely cold and unfeeling. It may be deliberate approach to his performance—and it works—but Jay does fail to engage on an emotional level. In contrast, Radhika Apte is extremely sympathetic, especially during the first half of the filmwhere Samira is treated poorly. In support, Jim Sarbh delivers a sly turn as Deepesh.
The Wedding Guest is a curious, but undemanding film. It will satisfy viewers who go along for the ride.
The Wedding Guest opens in Philly theaters today.