I went into “The Guest” knowing almost nothing about it. I was expecting something very artistic and the kind of movie Hollywood studios wouldn’t have the guts to finance these days, but what I got instead was the kind of thriller similar to those from the 1980’s like “The Hitcher.” I kept wondering why the Sundance Next Festival would allow something so formulaic to play at this festival, but when the filmmakers came out after a screening to talk about “The Guest,” it then became clear it was actually meant to be an homage to those thrillers we all grew up on. As a result, I quickly saw the movie in a different light.
But even before this revelation, I had to admit “The Guest” is a thriller which packs a mighty punch and left me on the edge of my seat throughout. It grabs you by the throat and holds you tightly within its grasp, and a lot of that is due to the infinitely charismatic performance by Dan Stevens who portrays the guest of the movie’s title.
“The Guest” starts off with an introduction to the Peterson family who are still grieving over the loss of Caleb who was killed in Afghanistan. Then a man knocks at their door and politely introduces himself as David (Dan Stevens), a friend of Caleb’s from the military, and he is here to fulfill a promise to his fallen comrade. David tells Laura (Sheila Kelley) and her husband Spencer (Leland Orser) he has no wish to overstay his welcome, but they become insistent he stay at their house to where he quickly becomes the best houseguest anyone could ever hope to have as he helps out wherever and whenever he can. But just as in life, we can’t help but think no one can be this nice without being somewhat psychotic.
Some of “The Guest’s” best moments come when David looks out for the Peterson children, Anna (Maika Monroe) and Luke (Brendan Meyer). Luke is having some major problems at school as he is the target of bullies who beat him up at any given opportunity. Now I have seen this scenario played out in many movies, and it used to tug at my emotions in a very strong way. But watching it in “The Guest” gave me that primal beat up the bullies feeling I haven’t felt in the longest time. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see David is going to give these jerks a taste of their own medicine, and watching him do so is a perverse thrill.
Anna is less quick to warm up to David even after he goes out of his way to get a keg of beer for her high school friends. From the start she is suspicious of who he really is, and those suspicions are confirmed when a number of strange events start happening around town. Of course, her dad can’t see him doing anything bad and chides his daughter for even thinking such a thing. After all these years, teenagers are still forced to deal with their parents’ hypocrisy, and that’s even with actors like Leland Orser playing the father.
As you can see, “The Guest” travels down the road of familiar genre conventions and delivers them to the audience in a way which feels both potent and fresh. The violence in the movie is more brutal than in others I’ve seen recently, and there are several scenes which shocked me I haven’t been shocked in a while. No character is on safe ground here, and anyone is expendable in a way those actors in “The Expendables” movies ever are. At the same time, the movie has a sharp sense of humor which shows just how much fun its filmmakers were having with the material.
“The Guest” comes to us from director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, the same two who gave us “You’re Next.” I came out of this movie wondering if they had as much playing around with the slasher genre in “You’re Next” as they did with the thriller genre here. Having interviewed them both the following day for the website We Got This Covered, I can tell you they absolutely did as they talked about combining elements from “The Terminator” and John Carpenter’s “Halloween” to make this movie a reality.
Furthermore, “The Guest” comes equipped with a terrific electronic score courtesy of Steve Moore which recalls the great 80’s electronic film scores like Mark Isham’s “The Hitcher” and the “Halloween” scores of John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, particularly the one they did for “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” Anyone who knows me best knows how much of a sucker I am for this kind of movie music, and I was digging’ Moore’s score right from the first note as it adds the ominous atmosphere we will be venturing through when David makes his entrance into town.
Seriously, this movie really does belong to Stevens who is best known for playing Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” the TV show everyone seems to be watching except me. He exudes endless charisma and makes you believe how lethal David can be when you look right into those beautifully steely eyes of his. I’m not kidding when I say he has a stare which can cut through you with a laser from a mile away. Stevens also infuses a number of his scenes with a twisted sense of humor, and this is especially the case when he coolly manipulates Luke’s principal to where he realizes suspending this young man from school might actually be hazardous to his health.
“The Guest” falters a little towards the end as the filmmakers get too enamored of the foolishness of their character’s decisions. It also has one of those horror movie endings which imply how evil can never die, and it feels a little soft compared to what we have seen in other films of its ilk. At the same time, it could mean that Wingard and Barrett will reteam for “The Guest 2,” and it would be fun to see how they would play around with the conventions of a sequel.
Seriously, “No Good Deed” could only dream of being as thrilling as this movie, and it starred Idris Elba for crying out loud. “The Guest” gleefully plays around with all the things we remember from the ultra-violent movies from our past, and I found myself enjoying it a lot even as things got increasingly nasty. Just when I thought I knew how this movie would play out, it quickly shifted gears and took me for a loop.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to buy this movie’s soundtrack.
* * * ½ out of * * * *