Review: The Guest (2014)
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriter: Simon Barrett
Cast: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelly, Leland Orser, Lance Reddick, Chase Williamson & Joel David Moore
Runtime: 99 min // Certificate: 15
It’s nigh on impossible to pigeonhole The Guest, the new film from You’re Next director Adam Wingard, into a single genre, because it dips its foot into everything from horror to thriller, exploitation to drama, and even a little romance, with lashings of dark comedy poured on top to help sweeten the taste of the often brutal mixture. Think Oliver Stone meets The Terminator with a generous side order of John Carpenter and you’re probably on the right lines.
As it’s a film that transcends and manipulates its numerous genres at every turn, the best descriptor I can think of for The Guest is “eighties”. Like Wingard’s previous effort, The Guest is full of knowing nods and winks to the films that define that decade, and anyone who loves a cheeky reference or twelve will no doubt be in their element as he takes us on an appreciative tour through some of his own favourite films. Furthermore, with its synth score, its Drive-inflected soundtrack, its use of isolated locations, its late-October setting and even its blunt but garish title card, it is a film rich in the sensibilities of a classic post-Halloween slasher, right down to its open ending; a clear throwback to the countless sequels to films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, the bulk of which were dominant at the Box Office when Wingard was still just a small child.
The film follows all the basic tropes of a simple thriller. Act one introduces us to David (played by the impossibly delicious Dan Stevens), an ex-soldier who turns up at the Peterson family household claiming to have served with their recently deceased son / brother, Caleb. From the moment we meet him, we don’t trust him but, just like the Petersons, we’re reassured by his presence. Something about David draws us in and coerces us into liking him, even when it becomes apparent that he’s violent and dangerous. Act two develops the dynamic between David and the Petersons, with a particular emphasis on the Peterson children – Anna (Monroe; Labor Day) and Luke (Meyer; Tooth Fairy) and coerces us into actively liking David, before act three turns everything on its head and races towards the inevitable conclusion that we all knew we was coming but still hoped to avoid.
That The Guest follows such a basic structure is all part of its appeal. It toys with the audience’s expectations, manipulates us into thinking that things might work out and then shatters our hopes with a final act that is brutal, devastating and genuinely affecting. It lacks an intellectual depth, sure, but it never pretends otherwise. Wingard’s film isn’t interested in philosophising about the military’s unfortunate predilection for enabling sociopaths and breeding psychopaths so much as it is interested in the simple and rather tragic tale of a broken man who has been programmed beyond basic humanity in what transpires to be a quest for freedom. Though we might not be able to relate to David, we can sympathise with him, and that’s the rock that makes this glorious combination of genres work quite as well as it does.
What the film lacks in intellectual depth, however, it more than makes up for in emotional depth. Beneath the violence and the dark humour lies the dual tale of a desperately damaged man and his relationship with a grieving family in need. It cannot be stressed enough that Dan Stevens carries the film on his muscular shoulders, and though one can happily wax lyrical about all the unspeakable things I’d allow Mr Stevens to do to me, his sex appeal and general demeanour do serve an important purpose beyond the realms of fantasy. Stevens’ performance grants David an effortless charm and charisma that is used to entrap both the audience and the characters within his sinister but charismatic web. He’s witty, charming and dashing, and he gets you on side. Then, without a moment’s notice, he’s cracked out his deathly cold stare and suddenly you’re terrified of what he is capable of. It’s a striking contradiction that the film manipulates to great comic and dramatic effect, and Stevens is clearly in his element with it all, as evidenced by his note-perfect performance.
For me, The Guest’s great success is that it evokes a mild form of Stockholm Syndrome in its viewers. David is dangerous and untrustworthy and we know it, yet whenever he’s on screen we feel strangely comforted by the knowledge that the Peterson family, whom writer Simon Barrett does his utmost to make us like and care about, will be safe. When David jumps to the defence of the Petersons and tries to make their lives easier, regardless of the means he utilises to do so, it feels like a comfort blanket for the audience. The guilt we might feel when we laugh at a bunch of bullies getting the shit kicked out of them quickly dissipates when we see the positive effects it has on the family. The film taps into our desire for a protector – a Guardian Angel if you will – and moulds that desire to great effect. In this respect, huge credit must go to Maika Monroe and Brendan Mayer, both of whom give fantastic performances as the Peterson children and provide a stark contrast to Stevens’ domineering and brooding turn as David.
The Guest is the perfect remedy to a summer of unambitious misfires. It lags a little at times, and the final act is perhaps a bit too generic, but for the most part it’s a slick, witty and barmy film that riffs off classic eighties films in a manner that is appreciative and respectful. Its cocktail of conflicting genres is thrilling to watch, and both Barrett and Wingard pitch them just right. The humour never supersedes the violence, the violence never supersedes the drama and the drama never supersedes the horror, rather they all accommodate each other in such a manner that you genuinely don’t know whether to laugh, cringe or cower. It’s tightly-written, well-acted and, most importantly of all, it’s a huge amount of fun. After a series of disappointments over the last few months, I’m pleased to say that I cannot recommend The Guest enough.
Finally, Dan, if you’re reading this and you ever need a place to stay, you’re more than welcome to be a permanent guest in my house / bed…