In his U.S. directing debut, Aussie Nick Tomnay delivers a twist-laden seriocomic home invasion thriller about a desperate criminal whose hostage is unexpectedly resourceful and certifiably nuts. Needing a hideout after robbing a bank, John (Clayne Crawford) talks his way into the tony home of effete bachelor Warwick (David Hyde Pierce). Once inside, Tomnay parcels out some ticklish surprises that still can't make us forget what the film is sorely lacking: clever verbal jousting that reveals deepening layers of character. Pierce delivers everything the role requires except serious menace, while the less-seasoned Crawford improves as his handsome face bares more of the evening's scars. Tomnay is too enamored of his trickery to strive for much else, leaving home viewing the more suitable option.
There are some exciting new players coming out of Australia, lead by the multi-hyphenate Edgerton brothers (The Square) and David Michôd, who directed countrywoman Jacki Weaver to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in Animal Kingdom. Using The Perfect Host as evidence, we can conclude that at this early career juncture Tomnay is not in that league: the Spoiler Alert plotting loses its punch as the film starts treading water, practically checking its watch until the next zinger is deployed. Tomnay clearly enjoys toying with our sympathies and, at least at the beginning, we enjoy having them toyed with. Scouring a secluded neighborhood for a place to hide from the cops, John rings the doorbell of a beautiful modern home. Its owner is Warwick, an impeccable dandy who is agreeable to the point of naiveté, given how readily he lets John in after claiming to be a friend of a friend. In these opening scenes, Pierce is jazzy and sociable as he revels in the great good fortune of an unexpected guest for his dinner party later that night.
Most of this low budget production was shot in Warwick's sparse, white-walled manse, so the onus is on Tomnay's script, lengthened from his own short film, to knock us out. Instead, he has created an exercise in misdirection and shifting allegiances intended to be their own reward. After Warwick learns that John is a wanted criminal, Warwick turns unexpectedly malevolent, drugging John and tying him to a chair. And so it begins, the surprises and power shifts piling up while everything around them (conga line, anyone?) plays like filler. As it unfolds, one dreams of Sidney Lumet's Deathtrap and wonders how David Mamet would have handled these two A-types as they jockey for supremacy in a closed environment. Actually, Mamet has tackled such material numerous times, including the nifty two-hander The Edge, a movie as deceptively simple as The Perfect Host is vapidly complex.
It's commendable that Pierce, not wanting for anything in this earthly realm after years on the NBC sitcom Frasier, would take this role. The character fits his image until it becomes a subversion of it and Pierce must stretch to become something unfamiliar to us. If only playing someone unhinged were the same as playing someone frightening. Try as he might (and he tries mightily), Pierce is just not an actor of mystery or bubbling rage waiting to surface. In an admittedly unfair comparison, Hannibal Lecter appeared onscreen for only 16 minutes in The Silence of the Lambs and AFI named him the #1 screen villain of all time. Save the unconvincing police procedural scenes, Warwick appears in almost every second of The Perfect Host and his most startling moment of spring-coiled aggression can't touch the least effective shot of Kathy Bates in Rob Reiner's Misery. That doesn't mean the movie lacks for playful unpredictability. It's just that these moments have the burden of compensating for everything that doesn't work, including the sketchily-presented backstory and the plot holes that often arise when characters are asked to be anything and do anything to service the next twist. Less an intricately woven tale than a series of black comic manipulations, The Perfect Host fancies itself a suspenseful game of poker when it's actually the work of a gleefully manipulative dealer playing with a trick deck.
Cast: David Hyde Pierce, Clayne Crawford
Director: Nick Tomnay
Screenwriters: Nick Tomnay, Krishna Jones
Producers: Stacey Testro, Mark Victor, Martin Zoland
Rating: R for language, some violent content and brief sexual material
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: July 1 NY/LA