It’s a familiar premise, so familiar that even its subversions are tired at this point: two passionate lovers on the run, carried by the open road as they rob their way across the country. But in Villains, written and directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, the twist is that these young criminals are hamstrung before they can even really begin. Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are our Bonnie and Clyde proxies; the film opens with their clumsy break-in at a convenience store, the swinging camera deliberately, and ironically, calling to mind the classic bank robbery set-pieces from films like Point Break and Heat as couple struggles to open the cash register.

Eventually they manage to get the money and hit the road, their excitement running high until it’s disrupted by a sinking realization: they robbed a gas station, but neglected to fill up. Now stranded in the middle of nowhere, they devise another break-in, crowbarring their way into the only house in sight in the hopes of making off with a new car, or at least siphoning some gas. But when they discover a bedraggled 10-year-old girl chained up in the basement, this would-be They Live by Night caper becomes something far more sinister (though not any less derivative).

Before the two can decide what to do, they’re met by the owners of the house, husband George (Jeffrey Donovan) and wife Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), an amiable, middle-aged couple whose antiquated southern charm would probably still register as a tad unsettling even were it not for the manacled child in their basement. Before long, the elder couple has the younger one in a bind: Mickey and Jules can have their car and be off on their merry way, so long as they leave the child behind. Neither pair wants the cops involved, and this would be their chance to make a clean escape.

Here, in a pointedly mirrored sequence of two-shots, is the first of many suggestions that these opposing couples have more in common than it might seem. As we learn later, George and Gloria were once criminal runaways, too, and here Mickey and Jules are given the opportunity to make good on that conflation, to follow in their solipsistic footsteps. (“He’d whisper to me ‘the two of us are all that’s real in the whole world,’” remarks Gloria later on, reminiscing on that youthful romance. “Everything else is just cardboard cutouts and playthings.”) It’s actually an interesting moral conundrum, and one that would seem primed to shed some light on these characters whom we’re still getting to know, but that door is closed with puzzling swiftness as Mickey, who just moments earlier was dead-set on leaving the girl behind, is now determined to play hero––why? The only reason one can muster is that it moves the plot along.

Things do not improve from there. Berk and Olsen’s script is tight, abiding unerringly by the three-act structures and setup-payoff principles taught in screenwriting books, and their direction recalls the satisfying efficiency of Blumhouse’s low-budget horror productions, but Villains is as convincing a piece of evidence as any that following the prescriptive rules laid out in film schools does not a compelling movie make. The film hits all of the beats it’s supposed to, Chekhov’s guns (or in this case Chekhov’s tongue studs, hastily broken doors and backpacks full of coke) going off at their predetermined intervals, but there’s little weight to any of the proceedings.

It’s a problem that manifests foremost in the characters. To return to that mishandled moral question, we should note that the film does provide an explanation for Jules’ liberatory desire by way of an unprompted, nakedly expositional monologue, wherein she recites her own sad backstory of parental abandonment. It’s the only real gesture at establishing for her a life beyond the events of the film, and it’s a frustratingly empty one. In attempting to explain Jules’ actions, the film runs into the same problem as when it neglected to explain Mickey’s: the scene is unconvincing because its function is purely practical, serving the plot without actually adding anything substantive to the character. The fundamental issue here isn’t that every little decision needs to be ham-fistedly accounted for, it’s simply that the characters making those decisions need to be convincing––these characters are not. Everyone in Villains has identifiable “motivations,” but that alone is not enough to craft an engaging character.

If there is a redeeming quality here it is perhaps in the film’s surprising climax, an absurd set piece that, in its confusing disregard for spatial logic and its jarring vacillation between melodrama and pulpy violence, improbably approaches something exciting. Had the rest of the film been as willing to depart from empty convention, it might have been interesting. Instead, Villains is content to play by the rules, and its ample payoffs are anything but satisfying.

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