Judge Patrick Rogers always feeds his dinner guests stale crackers and warm beer.
"It's a cheeky little drop isn't it?"
Magnolia Pictures has established itself as a flagship distribution company for viewers looking for something outside the box. The Perfect Host is a film that derives a great level of suspense and energy from unleashing two characters on each other and watching them struggle to gain the upper hand. It's a twisty little dark comedy where the table is constantly turning and the ferocity builds to a fever pitch. It's also a very flawed film, mostly because it does not quite find the right balance between humor and suspense. But it is saved by a gleefully psychotic performance by David Hyde Pierce (Frasier).
Facts of the Case
John Taylor (Clayne Crawford, A Love Song For Bobby Long) thought he had the perfect heist planned. But by the time he's dumped his clothes and picked up a new getaway car, he's bleeding all over himself because of a botched escape and the cops have his face and car details plastered all over the news. To buy some time to figure out his next move, Taylor knocks on Warwick Wilson's (David Hyde Pierce) door with a half-baked story about how he's a friend of a friend. Wilson, being the seemingly way too nice guy that he is, obliges and even tells Taylor to stay for dinner. With each glass of wine, Taylor has to step around Wilson's constant questions and probes into his relationship with Wilson's good friend. Before Taylor can execute the next step in his plan, he finds himself tied down to a chair face to face with an unhinged Wilson and his "dinner guests." Taylor becomes painfully aware that he probably shouldn't stick around for dessert.
The Perfect Host is one of those films that never quite gets into the right gear to carry itself over the finish line. Its cat-and-mouse premise may not be original but the film attempts to do it with such madcap delight that you feel as if it could elevate itself past the usual trappings of its subgenre. There's a great sense of macabre humor to the film, yet it doesn't blend as well with the more suspenseful or dramatic aspects. David Hyde Pierce tries everything in his power to make this movie exceptional and he almost fully exceeds in that aim. When we first meet his character Warwick, Pierce plays him as an affable bachelor. He's a man who gleefully describes his preference for white wine over red and the perfect way to cook a duck breast. He seems like the immaculate dinner host, and yet Pierce infuses this side of Warwick with an unsettling nature too.
We can tell that there's something wicked simmering right under the surface of Warwick's facade and the slightest of provocations could set it off. When it's time for Warwick to reveal his true nature to his dinner guest, Pierce changes gears so suddenly and so flawlessly that it's hard not to be swept up in the performance. The actor chews the scenery to such a degree it's astonishing the entire set wasn't swallowed up in his wake. Warwick turns from the perfect host to an absolutely unhinged madman, yet Pierce doesn't alienate the viewer by going too far over the edge nor does he dehumanize his own character to a degree where we stop relating to him. Instead he strives to have the audience try to connect with what makes this psychotic man tick, and Pierce mostly pulls it off. Some of the film's most brilliantly dark moments of humor center around Pierce's character and his break from reality.
On the other side of the coin is Clayne Crawford. The actor has a daunting task as the smarter-than-he-seems-yet-still-a-criminal character of John Taylor. Crawford has to try to stand toe-to-toe with David Hyde Pierce, and while he isn't swallowed up whole, Crawford is still overshadowed. It's always a hard thing to flourish as a supporting actor under the heel of such a commanding performance. But all the blame for an ineffective performance shouldn't be laid at the feet of Crawford, it should mostly rest with writer/director Nick Tomnay. With the screenplay, Tomnay tries to humanize the character of John Taylor by attempting to explain why he found himself embroiled in a robbery scheme. Where Tomnay goes wrong is in humanizing the character's motivations to a ridiculous degree. Taylor's reasons for turning to crime are so laughably corny that they feel like they belong in a sappy romance novel. The more frustrating thing is that Taylor spends the entire film being harassed and humiliated by Warwick so he doesn't need to be further humanized nor do his motivations need to be so ludicrously explained. The nature of the narrative itself already builds a certain connection and empathy with the character.
A second problem with the script is how it leaves behind the main thrust of the narrative to spend time with the cops trying to track down Taylor. The scenes are almost all comedic in nature and serve no real purpose except to muck up the overall tone of the film. They're incredibly extraneous scenes that can, at times, grind the entire film to a halt and distract from the most interesting aspect of the film: Taylor and Warwick battling against each other. Tangent to this issue is the screenplay's desire to use flashbacks to flesh out Taylor's backstory instead of slowly revealing it through conversation in the spatial confines of the main narrative. It's a lazy and uninspired device that further distracts.
The film also doesn't quite know where to go once Warwick has turned the tables and revealed his true nature. Many scenes seem to languish in a state of unknowing. A handful of scenes seem too similar for comfort, with Taylor escaping Warwick's grips only to be thwarted moments later, and there's not enough suspense in these scenes to forgive for the unoriginality. The defining mark of the film ends up being wasted potential.
Gripes aside, The Perfect Host is a well-directed film with even better performances. Tomnay may not be the greatest screenwriter out there but he's not the world's biggest slouch in the director's chair. Tomnay delights in cataloguing David Hyde Pierce's kinetic performance; the camerawork and playing on the nature of characters' subjective viewpoints helps to elevate it. The way that Tomnay deals with Warwick's dinner guests and the juxtaposition with what Taylor himself is seeing is genius and refreshing. Some of the greatest scenes in the film come about with the audience being shown what Warwick is imagining as reality and juxtaposing it against the actual reality. To say anymore would spoil one of the finest surprises of the film. Tomnay's greatest strength is in releasing and exploiting the film's vastly divergent tones of humor and suspense, but he goes overboard when he should show restraint and he eases back on the throttle when he should be going full bore.
One other negative is the 1.78:1 widescreen video transfer on this DVD is not the best, but the fault lies more with the artistic choices of the director than the transfer itself. Having been shot with digital cameras, The Perfect Host is an incredibly soft film. I've always found that DV shines when using natural color palettes and lighting, but here the colors are murky at best and there's very little clarity to the picture. The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track fares a bit better. The score is at times robust and varied, with the beginning of the film echoing one of Bernard Hermmann's (Psycho) dissonant and cacophonic scores. It's an obvious homage…almost too obvious. The rest of the score is generally flat and almost non-existent until the climax of the film. Though the dialogue itself is never swallowed up or rendered flat.
The special features themselves are pretty straightforward. There's a featurette with director Nick Tomnay going over the making of the film, another short featurette which is no more than a glorified trailer, and the trailer itself.
Ultimately, The Perfect Host is an ambitious film full of potential but its inability to sustain a tone and the clichéd nature of its screenplay keep it from being a memorable genre picture. Go in with low expectations and you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Not guilty, but Nick Tomnay is sentenced to six months of screenwriting
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