Atom Egoyan’s latest, Guest of Honour, is a terse drama arranged to be a puzzle film. I say “arranged” because Egoyan structures the narrative with flashbacks framed from different characters’ perspectives as they tell their version of a story, a family history that unfolds on-screen like puzzle pieces presenting themselves and forming the perimeter of a picture.
Undeniably, such a structure produces intrigue. We learn first that Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) is burying her father Jim (David Thewlis). She tells the local priest (Luke Wilson) their story, how her father used to own a restaurant but ended his career in health inspection. We see Jim go into various eating establishments, throughout the film, critiquing and assigning grades as he sees fit. This is window dressing, however, to the heart of this tale, which involves a crime Veronica committed (or perhaps it is not so clear-cut) while serving as a high school band instructor. Later, we learn also of Veronica’s time as a child learning piano—and of Jim’s involvement with her teacher, and her involvement with her teacher’s son.
Labyrinthine as it sounds, the twisty plot twists more from design than from the forward momentum of the story. Egoyan builds the film on plot revelations, which stack up as different characters lay down their cards and share their knowledge of events. But with each revelation, the intrigue lessens—the clearer the picture becomes, as each piece is added to the puzzle, the more plain it all looks.
It doesn’t help much that most of the characters retelling this tale are subdued to a fault. The beats of the story, in flashback, are presented as heavily fraught and emotional events. But in hindsight, those giving information or responding to it come across as unaffected, as if this examination of the past was more clinical than therapeutic.
Despite this, the film does stand on the shoulders of two resonant lead performances. Both Thewlis and De Oliveira give tense yet emotionally cagey baggage to their characters’ past selves which amplify the intrigue long enough that the letdown of the incessant plotting and its increasingly ludicrous reveals hits with less force.
In the end, though, Guest of Honour is fettered by its own nested design. As we fall into flashback after flashback (and flashbacks within flashbacks), it becomes evident that the end result of this fraught (and, frankly, over-cooked) exercise in deception and guilt cannot possibly deliver a satisfying conclusion.
Guest of Honour: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)