Movie Review: Atom Egoyan’s latest take on guilt, “Guest of Honour”

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It’s often said “I’d rather watch an interesting failure by (name a famous filmmaker here) than passable entertainment from anybody else.”

That motto earns another workout — after misfires by Scorsese and Spike — with Atom Egoyan’s latest. “Guest of Honour” sees the Armenian-Canadian filmmaker touching on some favorite themes. Guilt, remorse and atonement turn up in many of his films, the good (“The Sweet Hereafter,” “The Captive,” “Remember,” “Ararat”) and the not good at all (“Exotica,” “Where the Truth Lies”).

A striking young woman (Laysla De Oliveira) comes to a priest (Luke Wilson), asking that her late father earn a funeral at the priest’s church. As neither her nor her father were Catholic churchgoers, the good father needs a chat to get details, a feel for the man he will eulogize.

What follows, after some wistful small talk about how Dad “took care of my pet rabbit,” is a veritable confession. She’s been in prison. She wanted to be there because she felt she deserved it. And perhaps it was a way of not just atoning for her own “sins,” but in getting back at her father.

That sets us up for a story told in three timelines. There’s the distant past, Veronica’s childhood, her parents’ seemingly happy marriage and Dad’s dreams of a string of restaurants, followed by her mother’s illness and death. Then there are the events leading up to Veronica’s imprisonment, with the third thread being the “present,” conversing with the understanding priest, revealing a LOT more than would ever come up in a brief “What to put in the eulogy” interview.

It’s a tried and true structure for a film, but a problematic one in this case. It’s the first seriously unsatisfying element in a movie that almost sets out to frustrate expectations.

But it’s still fascinating a myriad of ways only a seasoned filmmaker could manage.

Dad (David Thewlis, terrific as always) abandoned his restaurateur dreams and became a restaurant inspector — sympathetic but firm, a stickler for rules.

“Everything made in here goes out there,” he tells a protesting chef being cited for a dirty kitchen. “And THAT’S who I’m here to protect!”

Is he the paragon of ethics and compassion he seems to be? Veronica and her tale of woe are meant to make us question that.

She was “the hot young teacher” in a music school. There was in incident involving students, a damaged and obsessed bus driver (Rossif Sutherland, yes, another member of Donald Sutherland’s family), a “prank,” a suicide and…

Egoyan sets us up for a lot of possibilities here, shifting points of view as we follow the inspector trying to get to the “truth” of why she ends up in prison, the ethical lines he may cross there suggesting lines he might have crossed earlier.

The restaurant scenes (one featuring bunnies, to be served by Arsinée Khanjian, Egoyan’s actress/producer wife) are fascinating dissections of the compromises and excuses of chefs and restaurateurs and the easy-to-abuse absolute power of an inspector.

Thewlis knows how to play characters we can’t quite make up our minds about, and this guy has some experience interacting with people, questioning and leveraging his position to get answers about why Veronica is in jail.

The Brazilian De Oliveira gives Veronica the entitlement of the beautiful. She knows how men and boys react to her, doesn’t shrug off the driver’s “hot young teacher” label, and is practiced in the art of dismissing unwanted attention.

But the mystery of Veronica’s “guilt” that may actually be remorse, or even punishment, is left fuzzy. Her cruelty is what we see. The notion that she’s condemning of misreading her father just hangs there.

And the “closure” of “confession” to this priest isn’t anything of the sort.

Egoyan doesn’t wrestle these issues into shape, the framing device seems like the first idea for “telling” this story when a second, third or fourth should have been considered.

That makes “Guest of Honour” more unsatisfying than bad, more polished than it could be in many ways, but sloppy in ones that count — namely the script. It’s a textbook case of a “fascinating failure.”

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MPAA rating: unrated, adult subject matter, profanity

Cast: David Thewlis, Laysla De Oliveira, Arsinée Khanjian, Rossif Sutherland  and Luke Wilson.

Credits: Written and directed by Atom Egoyan. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:43

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