starring David Thewlis, Laysla De Oliveira, Rossif Sutherland, Luke Wilson
written and directed by Atom Egoyan
by Angelo Muredda "He sounds like one of those people you hear about but don't see," Luke Wilson's pastor Greg tells bereaved daughter Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) early on in Atom Egoyan's Guest of Honour, laconically cutting through an exposition dump as only Luke Wilson can. Greg is drafting his eulogy for Veronica's father, the recently departed health inspector Jim (David Thewlis), for whom the film itself is a kind of prickly eulogy. A cold fish with inscrutable motives (he claims he's just working to protect the public from contamination, even as he wields his badge with extreme prejudice), Jim is the quintessential Egoyan protagonist. He's a moral question mark in a suit, like the tax auditors and insurance adjusters who have served the somewhat dimmed star of English-Canadian cinema so well in The Adjuster and Exotica. Imbued with a puckish meanness by Thewlis, Jim is the lynchpin to a modestly successful exercise that epitomizes Egoyan's annoyingly self-serious puzzle-box style, as well as, thankfully, his playfulness.
Greg and Veronica's present-day conversation, meant to furnish the former with enough material to celebrate someone he ostensibly barely knows, is the framing narrative to Egoyan's latest modernist noir curio. Veronica's memories of her father's turn from a soft-spoken Hamilton, Ontario restaurateur to an embittered widower, philanderer, and bureaucrat, turn out to be something of a feint. They're a roundabout way into what is, for the most part, a detective story centred on Jim's efforts to get to the bottom of Veronica's recent stint in prison for a sexual assault against a teenaged student, for which she enigmatically professes innocence despite insisting on serving out her full term. Jim's, Veronica's, and Greg's respective fishing expeditions into the unknowable traumas of the past yield a tangled memory play, punctuated by episodes of Jim passive-aggressively wielding his authority against a range of ethnic restaurants.
The non-linear structure is a familiar one for Egoyan, as is Mychael Danna's Celtic-accented score. Guest of Honour feels like a conspicuous return to old stomping grounds, not just because it circles back to the inner lives of professional-class hollow men whom you hear about but don't see. Egoyan is also repurposing floating signifiers from his other works, from a fire left to burn itself out to a bus driver whose motives come under intense scrutiny. Sometimes, as in the clunky, over-explicated symbolism of a lucky rabbit's foot with a connection to the underworld, the stylistic callbacks feel like a hollow compulsion, an itch he can't help but scratch. But there's a sense, too, that he's settling into what he's good at: complicated formalist mysteries about aloof stuffed shirts in emotional turmoil.
If there is a particular saving grace that distinguishes the film from less successful late Egoyan genre texts such as The Captive, which at one point halts to obnoxiously implicate the spectator in the exploitative violence of true crime, it's its minimalism. Setting aside the pretensions of the frame narrative and what it ostensibly says about our alienation from those closest to us, Guest of Honour is more or less content to serve as a character portrait of a jerk with family baggage. Not unlike Ian Holm in The Sweet Hereafter, Thewlis rides Egoyan's inscrutable wavelength--call it stilted eloquence--with a grace that often eludes more realistic, earthbound performers. There's a pleasurably odd seriocomic energy to the montages of his poker-faced, down-glasses surveying of the businesses he targets, and a general lightness in tone that recalls Egoyan's earlier, less tragically leaden work.
For all the directorial ease and modest flair Egoyan evinces here, the sense that he's at the very least making a good Atom Egoyan movie, the mystery, once revealed, doesn't seem worth the trouble. Nor is the powder keg full of hot-button issues he's working with justified by the surface-level treatment it receives. It's unclear what, if anything, Egoyan has to say about teachers who betray the confidence of their students (or pretend to), given all the oxygen this thread takes up. Meanwhile, Veronica's childhood trauma, tiptoed around and relegated to sotto voce implications for the first hour, turns out to be an afterthought. Still, it's hard to resist the film's daft charms, neatly summed up in Veronica's terse final report on her father--which Egoyan clearly hopes we'll read as a self-evaluation: "He made a lot of odd choices."