Guest of Honour: Crimes of the Heart, by David Bax
David Thewlis is one of those unfailingly great character actors who improves a few movies every year by turning up in bit and ensemble parts. It’s all too rare that such considerable talents get to headline movies; if you don’t count 2015’s Anomalisa, you have to go back to 2007’s The Inner Life of Martin Frost to find his last lead role. Now, however, with Guest of Honour, Atom Egoyan has given Thewlis his meatiest–and most electrically daffy–showcase since Mike Leigh’s Naked.
In the usual fashion of writer/director Egoyan, Guest of Honour tells multiple stories at once and not in anything close to chronological order. In the primary one, health inspector Jim (Thewlis) tries to uncover the truth about the events that led to his daughter, Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), being sentenced to prison. In flashbacks, we see those events as they really happened (giving us the informational upper hand on Jim). And, in the framing device, a now-released Veronica plans the now-deceased Jim’s funeral with the help of Father Greg (Luke Wilson). On top of all that, there are further flashbacks to Veronica’s past and details about the day to day duties of Jim’s career. Oh, there’s also a rabbit. It’s tantalizingly overstuffed, to be sure, but Egoyan keeps it from overwhelming us by structuring the movies as, essentially, a series of one-scene short films.
Egoyan may be working in much the same mode–grim and austere but with an almost undetectable wink–as he has for decades. But Guest of Honour also feels surprisingly fresh and up to date. For one thing, it’s a movie whose plot is driven by smartphones and text messages, still a somewhat rare occurrence for middlebrow cinema more than a decade after the release of the iPhone. But there’s also the cinematography of Peter Sarossy (Egoyan’s go-to collaborator since 1989’s Speaking Parts), which mimics the soft and somber good taste of handsome fare destined for suburban arthouse chains while actually recognizing those trappings for the depressive prisons that they are.
Guest of Honour‘s plot, which is all the more ludicrous for how straight-faced it often is, contains elements of seedy melodrama. But its true mode is mystery, with Jim as the detective following the clues even as they threaten to bring him closer to his own undoing.
There’s another name, actually, for that kind of mystery movie and it’s noir; Guest of Honour is certainly shadowy enough to qualify. But, in addition to the crimes Veronica may or may not have committed, most of the wrongs done and wounds inflicted here are emotional ones.
For such a byzantine narrative, Guest of Honour has a deceptively simple, even platitudinous, idea at its center. You can’t right a wrong by wronging someone else. Hurt, when not salved, will only cycle and echo, sometimes for generations.