Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: The Guest

by Patrick Bromley
It's everything cool you love about movies in one kickass package.

Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have fast become one of my favorite partnerships in all of Hollywood. Their first collaboration, 2010's A Horrible Way to Die, offered a different spin on the serial killer film and presented it as an intimate indie drama. Last year's You're Next twisted the tired home invasion subgenre into something thrilling and funny; it was one of my favorite films of 2013 and one of my favorite horror movies of the last 10 years. Now they've reunited for The Guest, another wonderful piece of genre filmmaking which isn't quite a horror movie but isn't too far off, either. Wingard himself has described it was the result of watching a double feature of Halloween and The Terminator. That about sums it up.

Dan Stevens plays David, a soldier who has just returned from active duty and pays a visit to the Peterson family, who are still grieving over the loss of their son Caleb, with whom David served. David is handsome and well-mannered. He doesn't eat or drink much. He barely sleeps. What he does is try to help with anything the Petersons need, whether it's taking care of son Luke (Brendan Meyer) and his bullying problem at school or keeping a secret for older sister Anna (Maika Monroe, a lab-created hybrid of Kat Dennings and Gwen Stefani). But then Anna begins to suspect David might not be exactly who he says he is...and then some men come looking for him...
Part action film, part slasher movie, part black comedy, The Guest is a tight, violent thriller that delivers everything you could hope for from a movie like this. Barrett's screenplay teases where it's going without explicitly laying it all out, scoring laughs as it piles on the insanity -- the movie knows how crazy it's getting but never stops to wink at us and say "Isn't this all crazy?" It's a series of small escalations that start out grounded in reality and gradually morph into Action Movie Problems (#actionmovieproblems). There's a fine line between being self-aware and being self-referential, and it's a line the movie deftly walks.

Stevens, a British actor best known for starring on Downton Abbey (which I still have never seen), is a real-deal dreamboat -- he has the chiseled looks of Paul Walker, the love-me stoicism of Ryan Gosling and the ice blue eyes of Steve McQueen. But his entire performance is pitched as a critique of the nice guy hunk we've been seeing on film ever since Nicholas Sparks became a thing: he locks in on the decency bordering on psychosis so often portrayed as romantic fantasy in other movies and makes it so literal it becomes comic. It's the kind of performance that turns actors into movie stars in the span of a single role. While he's got a few more movies hitting theaters in the coming months (including A Walk Among the Tombstones in just a few days), this is the one for which he'll be remembered at year's end. He's incredible.
As for Wingard, he continues to grow more confident and focused as a director; I'd dare call The Guest his most accomplished film to date. There are no missteps. It knows just how long to follow a certain thread before shifting gears and revealing information that steers the film into some new genre category. It avoids exposition dumps, giving the audience credit for keeping up but also recognizing when knowing the back story just doesn't matter. It knows how to get laughs not by making overt jokes but through expert timing and an acknowledgment of its own insanity (one line delivered completely innocently by Stevens -- it involves setting a fire -- is one of the funniest I've heard in a movie all year). This is a movie that knows exactly what it wants to do and goes about doing that exactly. Think about how many movies are unable to accomplish that same feat.

2014 has been an incredible year for genre movies, and it's because of people like Wingard and Barrett -- filmmakers who grew up on many of the best genre films ever made and understand how to make one that's special in the same way without just being a collection of riffs and references. The Guest is the movie in which Wingard's influences are the most apparent, but that's not a criticism. He's made a film infused with the DNA of Carpenter and Cameron but which stands on its own as an Adam Wingard film. This is a genre film that celebrates being a genre film in its every frame, from Robby Baumgarter's coolly removed photography to the incredible synth score by Steve Moore, which joins Jeff Grace's score for Cold in July and Jonathan Snipes work on Starry Eyes as one the year's best.
Like most of my favorite genre movies, The Guest manages to sneak in a bit of political subtext about the effects of war on soldiers and our treatment of veterans when they return home. There's also some stuff about bullying and about masculinity -- consider Luke's two father figures and what example each one sets. Mostly, though, it's a movie that works in the moment by celebrating being a movie and reminding us of why we love the Cinema of Cool in the first place. Like You're Next, it's very good at being exactly the kind of film it is, only a little smarter, a little funnier, a little more stylish than we typically get. It's a gift for genre fans.

While it's not the kind of thing that will be talked about come awards seasons (because it's not designed for that, unless the Academy begins handing out statues for "Best Chase in a Haunted Maze"), I can think of few other movies this year that do what they set out to do with the expert efficiency and fun of The Guest. Of course I love it. It pushes nearly all of my buttons. It's is one of my favorite movies of the year.


  1. So jealous you got to see this, I'm hoping it comes to my area this weekend so I can check it out. It's been getting really good reviews and I was eagerly waiting to hear what you thought of it because I know you would appreciate something like this if it was done well. After You're Next I'll watch anything Wingard and Barrett do. Thanks alot for the review Patrick,

  2. Never heard of this. Looks like my type of film. I also really liked You're Next. It had a great atmosphere about it. It felt very claustrophobic in a good way. I'll keep my eye out for this one. Cheers

  3. Great review Patrick - I'm so glad I read it - super-excited for this now. They are not doing themselves any favours with that poster - I committed the terrible sin of judging this book by its cover and dismissing it as straight to DVD garbage. Though I was vaguely aware of a new Wingard/Barrett joint being out I didn't even realize this was it - presumably I would have figured it out eventually but still, thanks man! Just like your review of You're Next I'm sure you've turned me on to an eventual new fave!

    P.S. Never would have thought Downton Abbey was for me but after blind-buying a Season 1-3 blu-ray set for like $20 I finally got to it and I'll be damned if it isn't pretty great. It's hard to quantify - on the face of it, it's nothing but a period soap opera with a good production values, but somehow it's much more than that. Recommended.

    1. Yeah about that film poster. I wonder how many films have a poster with a dude, just standing, while holding a bag.

    2. The poster totally looked lame, but the dude looked hot... the only reason I started reading the review... got me, I guess.

    3. Fair point. He is quite hunky. A bit Ryan Gosling ish. Looks like there going for the female market then. But then again we dont know who Anoymous is? Sorry. Could be male or female. Each to there own and all that

    4. He looks like Josh Lucas to me in the poster. Then again, everyone looks like Josh Lucas to me.

    5. Yes one way or the other he does look like someone hitchhiking to go star in a Fast & Furious movie.

  4. Gotta agree about the film poster. Its not good. A film poster has just one job to do. Make the film interesting or appealling. Sorry but Double fail for me here

  5. Replies
    1. It is forking great but I don't see why you put the asterixes...asterixi...asterixees? But you're right, it is fucking great.

    2. ...and the score kicks forking ass.

    3. I was a different fucking man back in September!

  6. Saw it at Sundance last year - Went in totally cold, knowing nothing about it - came out with a big grin on my face that took a long time to wear off. Loved it.

  7. Well, four months later...and jesus, what a movie.

  8. I just saw this too, and truly, what an interesting, awesome, clever treat. Dan Stevens rules, and the score is also killer. Let's hear it for more movies like this getting made.

  9. I just love how life works on occasion. I had been trying to find "Erin's Song" for You're Next for months, since the song they have in the climatic scene is absolutely scintillating.

    Finally someone posted it on Youtube; they were unable to cut out the dialogue, but now every time I listen to it I get to hear Erin jamming the blender on Crispan's head.

    Anyway, I read a remark in the comments section saying how the song reminds them of Zombi, who I had never heard of. So I listened to a few of their songs (Escape Velocity being the one similar), and they were absolutely marvelous.

    After a few days I found out Steve Moore (the lead band member) for Zombi (named after Romero's Dawn of the Dead (of course) did the music for The Guest, which of course was electric itself.

    Now I need to check out his other movie called Cub, which also sounds quite interesting: Over-imaginative 12 year-old Sam heads off to the woods to summer scout camp with his pack convinced he will encounter a monster...and he does.

  10. Finally I saw The Guest. As far as I can say, aside from some festivals, there was no theatrical release for it here in Germany. Damn.
    This would have been even more fun on the big screen than watching it at home.
    Clever, violent and funny thriller which is right up my alley. Loved all the things Patrick mentioned in his review.
    I was surprised by how easily convincing Dan Stevens is playing the opposite to his kind of douchebag character in the wonderfully soapy Downton Abbey.
    I saw him going violent before in A walk among the tombstones, but that was a supporting turn (and in the german version he was dubbed with a very inappropriate voice).
    Maika Monroe was also very good. I had to look after her at the IMDB but until now I only saw her in The Bling Ring of which I don´t remember that much.
    I still haven´t seen A horrible way to die but after this and You´re next I really look forward to Wingard/Barretts next film.

  11. Watched it again yesterday. Is it just me or is Leland Orser destined to forever be the guy with the killer dildo from Seven?

  12. Just watched this. It was fantastic. Thank you for the recommendation as I likely would not have bothered otherwise and very glad I did.