Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour displays all of today’s confusions. He’s got about six genres going at once: 1) a mystery in which flirtatious ex-con Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) requests a special funeral service, 2) a character study about her late father Jim (David Thewlis), an obsessively efficient health inspector, 3) an exploration of faith involving the Catholic priest Father Gregory (Luke Wilson), who hears her petition, 4) a sexual drama about Veronica’s involvement with several generations of lustful men including her father, her male teenage students, and a school-bus driver, 5) a social survey of ethnic immigrant restaurant entrepreneurs subject to her father’s official authority, 6) a multicharacter roundelay on themes of sacrifice, power, and forgiveness.
Egoyan intends a great film that penetrates the modern condition. The film was made before COVID-19, but it’s impossible to watch anything these days without feeling the pressure of the moment, which includes the social tensions of the past four years that COVID has only exacerbated. Egoyan offers a clumsy intellectual exercise.
These characters stand out like metaphors in New Yorker magazine short-story fiction. Each one is a stick figure in a narrative maze, a cosmic arrangement that resembles the geometrical sign-in pattern that unlocks Veronica’s cellphone — a symbol for the millennium’s isolation and detached communication.
Father Greg asks Veronica, “Anything you want to have mentioned about your father’s spiritual path?” and her pained response (“Spiritual path?”) poses phony skepticism. Egoyan’s flashback structure provides a more consistent spiritual journey than The Irishman or First Reformed. Without Thewlis (the unforgettable misanthrope from Mike Leigh’s Naked) — who gives a precise portrayal of a man balancing duty, decency, love, and a hurting sense of life’s unfairness — this movie would seem just as contrived as Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s shallow pseudo-epics.
Egoyan not only plants the film’s pathos; he overstuffs it. His storytelling shows the same, self-congratulatory sophistication of his The Sweet Hereafter (1997), an overpraised, now forgotten, literary adaptation that used a horrible school-bus tragedy for bourgeois self-reflection. Veronica’s comment “It was all about the contamination for him” states Egoyan’s conceit too bluntly.
A tangent about a restaurant serving fried rabbit ears seems Cronenberg-weird, but the absurdity (contrived to rhyme with an earlier plot element, or a horrific abortion analogy) works less well than the scenes that observe common despicable behavior — the commitment of sin without judgment that is so characteristic of the millennium. Yet Egoyan fails to pinpoint his/our frustration.
This makes the priest’s wrap-up, resolving all the characters’ misunderstandings — cleaning up the daughter’s dirty suspicions (“What I saw was not what I thought”) — redundant. Egoyan misdirects his dénouement by keeping the camera off the priest but solely on Veronica and her trite teariness. His secular sophistication deprives the film’s spiritual journey of narrative authority.
Guest of Honour centers on the idea of confession — and repeats it — but Egoyan seems unconvinced that it’s good for the soul. Like Scorsese and Schrader, Egoyan seeks to emulate Bresson’s great prayer-confession-conversion proposition in Diary of a Country Priest. He wants to answer our current global need for fair judgment or an epiphany but lacks the conviction to provide it. Does anybody know how to tell a story anymore? That question plagues a godless era.