It’s a while before we learn anything, even a name, about the title character in “The Wedding Guest.” Played by Dev Patel, who delivers an unexpectedly stoic lead performance, he is a man of deep professionalism and equally deep mystery.
Jay, as we eventually come to know him, has multiple passports, each of which uses a different name, and all of which he has carefully packed in his luggage as he prepares, methodically, to fly from London to Lahore, Pakistan. Upon arrival, he embarks on a road trip west, ultimately ending up in a small town called Younganabad. Along the way, Jay picks up a couple of guns and some heavy-duty duct tape.
Despite a title that sounds like a rom-com, “The Wedding Guest” initially gives the impression that it is a conventional thriller. Jay manages to abduct a bride-to-be, Samira (Radhika Apte) — at gunpoint — from her well-to-do family’s compound on the eve of her own wedding. But then things get really weird — and a lot more interesting.
Jay has been hired by Samira’s lover, Deepesh (Jim Sarbh), to save her from an arranged marriage. But what happens between the kidnapping and the reunion of Deepesh and Samira is a satisfyingly unpredictable meditation on female agency, in a culture in which women are too often treated as a man’s possessions.
Writer-director Michael Winterbottom (“The Trip to Spain”) is a shape-shifting filmmaker, and he continues that mutable pattern here, giving Patel the kind of role we’re not used to seeing him in. Jay is not exactly a hero, although he has a kind of honor. Nor is he the film’s antihero. For one thing, he’s a coldblooded killer. For another, the film belongs just as much to Apte, whose complex, contradictory character makes a great case for the argument that the film is misnamed for another reason. It’s her story, not his. In truth, it’s both of theirs, but not in the way you might think.
A lesser storyteller would have brought Jay and Samira together, pursuing the love-on-the-lam narrative. And for a while, “The Wedding Guest” looks as though that’s where it’s going. On the run from the police and her family, as they wait to coordinate a meeting with Deepesh, the kidnapper and his hostage briefly become something more than that.
And then — well, saying more would spoil the pleasure of the film, which surprises, in small ways, at every turn. Samira, like Jay, is no saint. Deepesh calls her a “snake” at one point, but he misses the point. She’s not treacherous because she defies his — and our — expectations. She’s simply human.
“The Wedding Guest” (3 stars)
In a change-of-pace role, Dev Patel plays a mysterious (and lethal) British man on a mission in Pakistan and India — he’s hired to save a woman from an arranged marriage to a man she doesn’t love. Despite the romcom-sounding title, this is a thriller, ably directed by Michael Winterbottom.
Rating: R, for strong language, some violence and brief nudity.
Showing: Seattle 10, Meridian