Although it fancies itself as rigidly complex as a well-played chess match, Nick Tomnay's The Perfect Host is really a game without any rules, one where characters and situations exist in total thrall of the next shocking twist. Adapted from a prize-winning short, the film is riddled with cracks from the story's transition to feature-length. Tomnay, who's clearly smitten with his small seed of an idea, uses it as a model to set up successively implausible variations on that original kernel of surprise, a concept that only becomes enjoyable once it goes completely off the rails.
The movie opens with strong, lunging momentum, as John Taylor (Clayne Crawford), bleeding profusely from his foot, hauls a duffel bag full of cash from a bank heist. The clockwork set of maneuvers he arranges to erase his trail, from dumpster hiding spots to a succession of discarded vehicles, seems to indicate a sharply creative mind. Eventually, it becomes apparent that Tomnay favors complicated tricks at the expense of story and pacing, a fault that's first identified as John gets caught in the middle of a convenience store holdup, snatches the thief's gun, has a gun pulled on him, and flees empty-handed. It's a useless scene, one that diverts tension from the escape and identifies this as a movie that can't go five minutes without resorting to some kind of noisy stunt.
This becomes even clearer after John pulls off a clever home invasion, entering an increasingly bizarre pas de deux with Warwick (David Hyde Pierce), the host of the film's title. Warwick has a dinner party planned, one which he's fully set on hosting, hostage situation or not. This sets up a suspenseful scenario, well drawn at first, which is then punctured much too soon. As any sense of verisimilitude seeps away, there becomes increasingly less reason to care about these characters or what's happening to them, and the situation explodes into a grotesque, sputtering comic farce.
The Perfect Host's scant pleasures inevitably derive from its audacity, an increasingly unhinged devotion to making very little sense. Points like the sudden revelation that John is secretly a chess expert, one of many small details lost in the flood of silliness, are significant: The chess surprise not only sets up one of roughly 15 rug-pulling reversals, it also alerts the audience that we're in unsafe hands, trapped in a puzzle with a disproportionate sense of its own intricacy.
So your ability to enjoy The Perfect Host will roughly coincide with how much you like being duped, via cheap tricks with no organic basis in the story. The film is a crude rollercoaster, but one that once all hope of a cohesive product is lost at least throws in some entertaining insanity. A lot of this has to do with Hyde Pierce, who in a committed performance hurtles through a gauntlet of different characters, imbuing each with persnickety weirdness. It's easy to see why he chose the role, and watching the actor thrash around in these roles almost makes The Perfect Host worthwhile, keeping a fitfully amusing flop from turning into an unmitigated disaster.