A man methodically packs a suitcase. A few shirts, a few pairs of pants. Everything is folded precisely and stacked neatly, and then, at the last moment, four passports are slipped inside the case. Airport security doesn’t notice, not in the United Kingdom or in Lahore, Pakistan, but no one notices much about this man, anyway. He’s too self-assured, too inconspicuous. He has precise dates for how long he wants to rent a car; he keeps to himself while eating an order of biryani or dropping to his knees to pray in a mosque; he’s knowledgeable while buying a gun but not flashy about it. He’s polite and he’s quiet and you’ll probably forget him as soon as he walks away.
This is how we’re introduced to Jay (Dev Patel, looking extremely handsome, please send help) in The Wedding Guest, a movie that takes its time in setting up its story. Jay (not his real name, but we never learn it) barely talks, but he exudes authority and confidence, first in the bustling city Lahore and then as he moves deeper into Pakistan, into the province Punjab, which shares a border with India. He doesn’t speak Punjabi, but he’s an effective communicator regardless. He befriends a local boy. He smokes cigarettes with other men. And they’re all there to attend a wedding, with Jay saying he’s a guest of the brother of the bride, Samira (Radhika Apte).
But it becomes clear that’s not true when Jay, with a mask covering his face and a gun in his hand, breaks into Samira’s family compound the night after she arrives. Through a house packed with crowded, sleeping guests, he makes his way to where she is, wakes her up, and slips a bag over her head and zip-ties around her wrists. “People will be killed if you make a noise,” he hisses, and then he dumps her in the trunk of his car and takes off.
What happens next is a tension-filled, effectively paced hour of neo-noir realness, with Jay, Samira, and another man, Deepesh (Jim Sarbh), engaging in alliances and double-crosses, attempting power plays, and simultaneously playing into and going against traditional gender roles. Patel and Apte have the most time together, and they are ridiculously good, with an excellent chemistry that can alternately lean erotic or adversarial. I assume that Patel will just send off a copy of the film for his James Bond audition, as he should. And the twistiness of the script and the sumptuousness of the direction by Michael Winterbottom are both delicious, in particular because of how resolutely Winterbottom rejects any sort of colonialist lens in his approach.
The landscapes are lovingly, meticulously shot; there is beauty in the chaotic activity assigned to Lahore and New Delhi and a real understanding of the migrant experience in how the border between Pakistan and India is presented. Yes, Winterbottom is a white, British man, but his experience with The Trip films demonstrates a thoughtful visual eye, and the film’s plot accurately and intentionally explores the cultural and religious frictions between the two countries without ever delving into cheap stereotype.
All of that makes The Wedding Guest feel quite invigorating: A genre work that honors the established conventions of neo-noir but updates them not only with non-white casting but with story elements that examine who a femme fatale could be in this day and age, what the responsibilities of a trigger man would entail, whether a rube can be complicit and involved in his own downfall. All set in India and Pakistan, with an appreciation for the customs and traditions and daily lives of the people who live there or are from there! With a grown-ass man version of Dev Patel, who could tie me up also if he would like!
OK, I’m sorry, did I go too far? I APOLOGIZE FOR NOTHING. Because The Wedding Guest is great and should be seen and if I have to resort to thirst to get you there, so be it!
The Wedding Guest is playing in limited release around the U.S.
Image sources (in order of posting): IFC Films, IFC Films, IFC Films, IFC Films