In the opening scenes of "The Wedding Guest," we observe as a mysterious British Muslim man named Jay ("Lion" star Dev Patel) makes his way from the UK to Pakistan. We're with him as he rents two different cars, then purchases a couple guns, duct tape, and zip ties. It's a strange collection of supplies that seem all the stranger once we figure out he's on his way to a wedding celebration.
Jay arrives while final preparations are still underway, and we see him skulk around the proceedings, avoiding being seen by the bride, Samira (Indian actress Radhika Apte), and keeping his distance from the wedding party. Gradually, we realize that he plans to abduct the bride-to-be on the eve of her nuptials. The hows and why of his plot are only gradually revealed to us.
Director Michael Winterbottom is a chameleonic filmmaker, adapting to a variety of genres over the course of a prolific career that has taken him from political documentaries ("The Shock Doctrine") to comedy ("The Trip" and its two sequels). Working from his own bare-bones script, his latest takes the shape of a romantic thriller, though streamlined to a fault. Dialogue is sparse, while character motivations and backstory are often frustratingly murky.
With so much left ambiguous, much of the responsibility falls to the actors to carry us through on sheer charisma alone, and the film's stars do an admirable job. As their journey continues, Jay and Samira grow closer to one another, and they become a team of sorts as they attempt to escape the notice of local authorities. While the locations add a nice texture to the film, there's no real sense of what kind of threat Jay and Samira face as they tear through city after city, journeying from Mumbai to Delhi and Goa.
As a performer, Patel (also acting as the film's producer) has charisma to spare. He's made a career playing breezily affable characters, so seeing him play the stoic international man of mystery is a nice change of pace. It's a bona fide movie star performance. Apte invests her character with a cool, quiet intelligence. It's obvious that the runaway bride holds much more power than at first appears, but we never learn enough about her or her life in Pakistan. As a character Samira remains maddeningly enigmatic, which is disappointing considering that Winterbottom's screenplay seeks to explore female agency and power dynamics in a culture that tends to provide its women with few options.
But our investment in the plight of Jay and Samira requires more than the promise of potential double crosses to latch onto such a flimsy narrative. Plus it's tough to get fully on board with any romance that begins with one partner holding a gun to the other's head. A thriller that's surprisingly low on thrills, even strong performances from its two leads can't turn "The Wedding Guest" into an event worth the trouble of attending.