REVIEW: David Hyde Pierce Anchors an Otherwise Wobbly Perfect Host
You'll have to hang on to something to get through the hairpins in The Perfect Host, a chamber piece hostage thriller black comedy undone less by its twists than by the stretches of bad road between them. First-time writer and director Nick Tomnay has undertaken a hugely ambitious script, and found the perfect actor to host the blighted dinner party at its center. The casting of David Hyde Pierce as Warwick Wilson, a fastidious Los Angeles bachelor preparing a sumptuous meal for his friends, is so inspired it's obvious, or vice-versa. The initial setup -- the preparations for a flawless gathering are interrupted by a fugitive (Clayne Crawford) looking for a hideout -- works beautifully. Then the evening takes its first turn.
Crawford plays John Taylor, a criminal whose busy day has involved a three-vehicle escape from a bank robbery, a bloody foot, an APB, and the interception of a second robbery as he's trying to pick up some First Aid supplies. Seeking cover in a swishy L.A. neighborhood, he's turned away by a savvy Jehovah's Witness played by Helen Reddy, but a postcard in Warwick's mailbox gives him the cover story he needs to wheedle his way through the door. Pierce has a gay old time playing Warwick, from the sublime, comfy shimmy of his walk -- contrasted with John's bloody-footed lurch -- to the cosseted, lapdog inquisitiveness of his expressions. This, it would seem, is a man to whom no bad things have come. Much of the fun of the film's first half hour is trying to figure out whether Warwick is too naïve or simply too gracious to see this D-list criminal ("John Jones" is what he comes up with for an alias) for what he is. I mean, who would do such a thing?
The enjoyment you get out of the middle section of The Perfect Host depends on how quickly you recover from having your cleverly pre-subverted expectations subverted and then some. Tomnay isn't interested in the psychology of hostage-taking, nor is what follows a reversal -- an extended payback lesson in proper etiquette. A breed apart even among psychotic aesthetes, Warwick unleashes a different and ultimately disappointing hell on his intruder. As the scope of the predicament opens up, the viewer searches for a new tension to hang onto, and Tomnay encourages our shifting sympathies. But the relative morality of motivated crime (fragmented flashbacks to John's pre-robbery circumstances expand into full scenes as the film goes on) and what appears to be pure evil isn't exploited to real satisfaction. Oddly, the more intimately John and Warwick are bound -- and this is very much a two-person show -- the less compelling their relationship becomes.
Shot with the Red One camera, The Perfect Host uses its blend of metallic sharpness and eerily low contrasts to great advantage. Pierce's blue eyes are saturated into pools of black, and the pristine décor is leeched of enough life to give the apartment the cast of a geometric prison. A decision is made early on to make the nature of Warwick's psychosis clear, and though it saps potential energy from the plot, the exquisite weirdness and vaguely Teutonic menace of Pierce's performance picks up the slack. Once we leave that home, however, and outside air comes rushing into the story, the film gets stuck in a kind of coda loop, each twist loosening the vise grip Tomnay is clearly capable of, instead of deepening its hold.