A deep gash in his foot, 33-year-old home-tattooed “career criminal” ex-con John Taylor (Clayne Crawford) limps from the First National Bank, stashes a stolen $300,000 and thin disguise, is nearly undone by an inept convenience-store robber (Brooke Anderson), and seeks some place “to collect myself” and later his girlfriend, when he and the maroon getaway Buick are fingered within seconds. So begins ironic, twisty The Perfect Host, a 2010 Sundance première first feature directed and co-adapted by Nick Tomnay from his 2001 short, The Host (also with Krishna Jones as cowriter).
With crooks and the crooked-minded double-crossing one another or living fantasy lives behind respectable façades, this ninety-three minutes takes a turn too many and, to afterthought, offers implausibilities that do not bear up under scrutiny. But it succeeds as fun, for disbelief is mostly suspended, and the wool is pulled over audience eyes as much as over those of some characters, while a final scene promises that another, previously rational one will be next to join that list.
Failing to persuade an upscale-neighborhood woman of his Jehovah affiliation and need for shelter, the man on the lam takes a postcard in a mailbox, from “XX Julia” in Sydney, Australia, to fib his way into fey Warwick Wilson’s (David Hyde Pierce) immaculate house. Luggage lost by Qantas, papers and money gone in a mugging, and his cousin not answering the phone, he claims to bring greetings from the vacationer Down Under. In light of revelations further on, Warwick knows this to be false from the start yet plays to the man on his doorstep and to the film viewer so convincingly that it seems real -- and inconsistent, though acceptably so.
Taylor is invited in, plied with red wine, and asked to make a fifth guest at a roast-duck dinner party set for 8:30. Rising-star D.A.’s prosecutor Roman, impeccable bow-tied Rupert, ditzy Chelsea (Tyrees Allen, Cooper Barnes, Annie Campbell) and hard-nosed Monica appear a little with other raucous conga-line partygoers but mostly as a lone foursome here and there in intercuts and, though perhaps based on real acquaintances, immediately apparent as in the host’s mind and not in the flesh. Warwick believes in them, however, and is offended when his one physical guest spits out that he is a liar.
Taylor, he strikes back, is a gutless nobody, on whom he turns sadomasochistic tables when the jittery, tipsy thief becomes obscene, belligerent and threatening with a kitchen knife. As the two cat-and-mouse and even play chess for the same stakes as Bergman’s Knight and Death, the phantom guests-of-the-mind flit in-and-out and brief flashbacks fill in Taylor’s reason for risking sentencing as a recidivist two-time loser.
In these, a milder Taylor frolics with girlfriend Simone De Marchi aka Pryor (Megahn Perry), teaches her chess and its mental jousting in a bathtub, and worries about liver damage from her abuse of painkillers. Less frequent, irrelevant at first but increasingly intertwined, are the bank robbery investigations of Police Detective partners, dim Valdez (Joseph Will) and astute Ben Morton (Nathaniel Parker), who also chooses red wine over white and is alerted by a neighbor (singer-actress Helen Reddy) whom his lieutenant dismisses as a persistent lunatic and by a Polaroid photo mailed from Mexico.
Crawford and John Malkovich-like Pierce are excellent screen sparring partners, and while their deceptions are discarded early on, disclosure of another’s duplicity is withheld until the end (though there have been hints), along with a shocker about a public identity. Cool reflection discerns the manipulation that has gone on and the impossibility of the totality. But the proof of the pudding is that, in this variant on the staple of innocents’ knocking at an unknown normal-looking house getting more than bargained for, Tomnay has gotten “the audience to take a ride with the filmmakers and the characters and hopefully have a bit of a laugh along the way.”
(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated “R” for language, some violence and brief sexual content.)
The Perfect Host opens July 1, 2011. VOD availability since May 27, 2011.