One of the hallmarks of British director Michael Winterbottom is his refusal to be tied down by generic restraints. He leaps easily from dissecting pop culture (24 Hour Party People) to sober Oscar bait (A Mighty Heart), from ambitious literary adaptations (Tristram Shandy and a daunting trio of Thomas Hardy novels) to the brilliant free-form dialogues of his Trip trilogy. The Trip cycle's sense of movement and (in the third installment) understated hint of paranoia are echoed in The Wedding Guest, the director's latest.
Set in Pakistan and India, The Wedding Guest is a loose, rootless crime film, a kind of road movie in which the motivations and directions of the characters keep changing. Protagonist Jay (Dev Patel) is a no-nonsense professional criminal, the kind of man who knows how to get a job done no matter how many re-directions and fake passports it takes. Jay arrives in Pakistan on an assignment to kidnap a young bride on the eve of her wedding and deliver her to her boyfriend. When his plans go awry and a guard is killed, Jay and his hostage Samira (Radhika Apte) take to the road. As they wind their way through India, the usually cool criminal, who's used to being in control, begins to realize that nothing about his assignment or his fellow traveler is what he expected.
Part film noir, part existential drama along the lines of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger, The Wedding Guest unfolds at a seemingly improvised pace, each new twist requiring a spontaneous response from the outlaw couple. Following the pair as their relationship evolves, Winterbottom favors mood over narrative, and a rambling sense of uneasiness sets in. Despite the specificity of the Asian location and the inescapable presence of 21st-century technology, there is a timelessness to the characters and their dilemma. It's like a Graham Greene novel with cell phones.
Despite a swerve into Hitchcock territory in its final third, I suspect that The Wedding Guest will disappoint viewers looking for decisive action and clearly defined heroism. (For those who like strong resolution, the ending is completely logical, yet both predictable and disappointing.) Winterbottom is stronger on atmosphere and small details than on plot and is clearly more interested in watching his lead performers react to their settings than in worrying about how to tie things up neatly.
At its best, The Wedding Guest skillfully creates a kind of intimate connection between the camera and his characters, a subjective connection that suggests we're sharing their immediate reaction to everything, whether it's picking up a gun or simply answering a phone. With two fine lead performers and an evolving, unfamiliar setting (for most Western audiences), it's a compelling journey — if you're not too worried about the final destination.