When Villains opens, a pair of animal-masked criminals is struggling to successfully rob a convenience store. This may not be their first heist, but Mickey and Jules (Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe) haven’t ironed out the kinks. After outsmarting the cash register, the inept bandits hit the road with a bag full of cash and drugs. Their dreams are leading them toward a new life on the beaches of Florida. But an empty gas tank leaves them stranded on a country road.
The pair soon spy a mailbox, leading them to a large and seemingly unoccupied house. Mickey picks the lock, but cannot pick the deadbolt. He pries the door open with a crowbar, and enters the house with Jules. The couple make their way through the home, searching for car keys. The interior of the house is a study in anachronistic design; it seems to ripped from the pages of an early-1970s magazine, or perhaps the Sears catalog. Yellowish formica countertops mingle with horrid orange wallpaper and wax fruit. A dusty television, which Mickey later declares to be “old as fuck” sits ignored in a corner. Several times, we see Jules and Mickey ignoring tiny clues which appear, telling them to leave while they still can.
By the time they stumble upon a dark secret hidden in the basement, it is too late for Mickey and Jules. While they try to decide what to do about their discovery, the owners of the home return. George and Gloria (Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick) have a genteel exterior, but it barely conceals a predatory psychopathy. The film quickly demonstrates who the real villains are, and how far beyond their depth Jules and Mickey have gone. George and Gloria have been unable to build a family of their own. They view the world as being populated solely by “cardboard cut-outs and playthings.”
The remainder of the film escalates the stakes as Jules and Mickey try to outsmart and escape their captors. Writers and directors Dan Berk and Robert Olson manage to deftly balance the tension with the right amount of gallows humor. They aren’t afraid to shock the audience back from their laughter with moments of cringe-inducing violence. The pair previously worked on Stake Land 2, and while Villains isn’t as horror-focused as that film was, there are moments that clearly show their roots in the genre.
Villains feels almost wholly original, though there are elements of other films at play here. Bill Skarsgård’s portrayal of Mickey, for example, is one of the most enjoyably comedic criminals since Nicolas Cage’s role as H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona. The setup of the story’s true villains, along with their house of horrors and imprisoned children, recalls Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs. Jeffrey Donovan’s portrayal of George seems inspired by John Waters. And Maika Monroe simply shines here. Her turn as Jules compares favorably to her other memorable roles in genre favorites The Guest and It Follows.
Berk and Olson, together with their ensemble cast, have created a twisty and darkly comic thriller that also has a surprising amount of heart. Jules and Mickey are flawed people on the wrong side of the law, but thanks to strong performances and taut scripting, you’ll find yourself rooting for them. Villains skillfully dances between laughs and thrills, punctuated with moments of blood-soaked violence.
Darkly Comic Thriller ‘Villains’ Isn’t Shooting Blanks [SXSW Review]
Villains is a twisty and darkly comic thriller that also has a surprising amount of heart. Skarsgård plays possibly the funniest small-time crook since Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona, and Maika Monroe simply shines.