Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s “Villains” takes place in a universe where criminals, from bargain-basement gas-station stickup artists to terrifyingly violent serial killers, are all utterly delightful. Four such ne’er-do-wells finds themselves in the same house in “Villains.” Violence breaks out, mind games are played, and it’s all so adorably eccentric that you don’t ever want it to stop.
Bill Skarsgård (“It Chapter Two”) and Maika Monroe (“It Follows”) co-star as Mickey and Jules, two young thieves who can barely rob a liquor store. Opening the cash register is, to these kids, a task on par with the Riddle of the Sphinx. And yet, thanks to the power of teamwork, they succeed in their Herculean task of opening that drawer. There is nothing they can’t accomplish when they work together. Maybe. If it’s easy enough.
Mickey and Jules are celebrating their extreme cleverness when, just a few miles down the road, their car runs out of gas. It takes them a while to calm each other down, talk themselves out of indulging in nervous habits, and just walk to the nearest house to steal another car. What they find, however, is not just a house. It’s the lair of a husband-and-wife serial killer duo, who are just as effervescent and likable as Mikey and Jules — and about a million times more dangerous.
George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) are a prim and proper Southern couple, with easygoing drawls and a little girl chained up in their basement. It’s such a weird development that Mickey wants to flee and pretend this whole gross interlude never happened, but Jules refuses to leave the child behind. After all, they may be criminals, but they’re not villains.
It’s rare to see a film so nimbly dance around anything resembling a point. Berk and Olsen’s script is the perfect breeding ground for moral relativism, class divisions and rejections of old-fashioned family units. It’s about poor people who break into a rich couple’s house and discover that they’re more wicked than the characters who, seemingly, are the real menace to society. Wes Craven had a field day with that in “The People Under the Stairs.” So did Fede Alvarez in “Don’t Breathe.”
But “Villains” has no interest in engaging with its bigger ideas. It’s having too much fun watching Donovan and Sedgwick ham it up as church-going mass murderers, and watching Skarsgård and Monroe be devastatingly lovable together. We want nothing bad to happen to Mickey and Jules, which is a shame, because they’re not very bright and they practically fling themselves into trouble. And although we want George and Gloria to get their comeuppance, we also don’t want to get there anytime soon, because the game of cat-and-mouse is silly and suspenseful, and thank goodness it lasts.
“Villains” is a gushy love letter to its four main stars. Skarsgård has been getting typecast as demonic Stephen King villains lately, after starring roles in the two “It” movies and the Hulu series “Castle Rock.” To see him play the normal guy in a lovey-dovey relationship, trying to prevent bad things from happening, is a refreshing counterpoint to his demonic clown shenanigans. He’s a four-alarm charmer, that Skarsgård. And his chemistry with Maika Monroe, one of the most reliably captivating stars of her generation, is perfectly light and 100% believable.
Meanwhile, Donovan and Sedgwick seem to have wandered accidentally off the set of a John Waters movie. Their house is a museum of chintz; their kinks and obsessions are perfect send-ups of conservative culture. All they wanted was a nuclear family, and when they couldn’t make one themselves they went nuclear themselves. Apparently they’ve spent decades feeding into each other’s obsessions, wholly enabling their partners’ worst private fantasies. That makes them desperately in love with one another but also disturbingly dangerous. Nothing matters to them but each other. Everyone else is a plaything. Or expendable.
It’s fun to watch clever people think their way out of impossible situations. What Berk and Olsen do in “Villains” is make it wildly entertaining to watch not-so-clever people try to do the same things. Sometimes they get lucky. Sometimes their schemes are idiotic. But we don’t begrudge them their failures the way we sometimes do in less engaging horror movies. We don’t just want to cut Mickey and Jules some slack, we’re happy to do it. They’re trying, for crying out loud.
“Villains” is trying too. It’s trying to captivate the audience with a four-person character piece, full of whimsical dialogue and oddball performances. The cast is game. The filmmakers are up to the challenge. Cinematographer Matt Mitchell (“Little Woods”) keeps the environs warm and inviting, and the editing by Sofi Marshall (“Chained for Life”) is brisk and playful. You’re trapped in a house with two serial killers and a couple of dopey small-time thieves, and you’ll never want to leave.
It may lack insight, and it may play like an eccentric genre exercise, but there’s no denying that “Villains” is a high-spirited crime comedy that keeps you pinned to your chair, wondering what the heck is going to happen next and if these characters are smart enough to get out of it. It’s a small, quirky little engine of suspense. And although it won’t get you very far, it’s doing a dandy job.