The American thriller with a twist has been done so many times that it rarely manages to surprise. In the years following "The Usual Suspects," few movies have successfully altered the relationships between various main characters in a way that's both dramatically satisfying and unexpected. Rare exceptions, including "Memento" and the undervalued "A Perfect Getaway," assume that audiences have active imaginations, and so their scripts contain valuable efforts to remain a step ahead of an intelligent viewership. Generally, however, forehead-slapping predictability abounds, "The Perfect Host" being the latest example.
Nick Tomnay, making his directorial debut, shows his capacity to construct a tense home invasion narrative. He probably has a better movie in him. Unfortunately, the screenplay (co-written by Tomnay and Krishna Jones) goes through a number of developments that play with expectations without changing the uninspired premise behind it all. It's a moving picture with a familiar frame.
David Hyde Pierce gives himself over to the role Warwick Thorton, a wealthy maniac who selects the bank robber John Taylor (Clayne Crawford) as the latest victim of his demented stay-at-home murdering antics. Tomnay begins by following John on the lam from the law, until he manages to find temporary sanctuary at Warwick's abode by telling a few lies. Their awkward banter leads to the threat of violence, before a sudden role reversal puts Warwick in charge.
Thus begins a prolonged second act that veers into horror territory--Tomnay even dips his toes into the forgotten waters of torture porn--before doubling back to another ludicrous twist. And then another. In retrospect, a few of these instances require the acceptance of happenstance that strains the already ludicrous modern day standards for movie logic. Even if the loose credibility were given a pass, "The Perfect Host" falters because no single incident radically upends the movie's grim atmosphere, not even Pierce's commitment to an utterly crazy performance.
Nevertheless, the actor throws himself into the role, relishing the opportunity to take his deadpan comic appeal in a wild direction, following the road paved with varying degrees of success by Jim Carrey ("The Cable Guy") and Robin Williams ("One Hour Photo"). But the script doesn't give him enough milage to make it worth the effort, save for one outstanding sequence in which Warwick unleashes his disco moves on a tabletop, grooving to "Car Wash" alongside a half dozen imaginary friends. "The Perfect Host" could use more of this inspired lunacy.
As a recent alternative, consider the morbidly gripping Spanish home invasion thriller "Kidnapped," released on VOD a few weeks back. Miguel Angel Vivas' supremely unsettling story of a rich family tormented by anonymous thugs continually charges in new directions, both narratively and stylistically: The director uses split screens and frightening outbursts of violence to maintain a constant feeling of uncertainty. Vivas doesn't just play with audience expectations; he tears them to shreds. By contrast, the innumerable change-ups in "The Perfect Host" only pretend to take the plot in new directions. In reality, each new twist is perfectly derivative, which leads to a host of problems.
criticWIRE grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? In limited release this weekend, "The Perfect Host" is unlikely to generate much interest, although it could have a solid life on VOD, where it has been released by Magnolia Pictures.