This guest is polite but dangerous
Review by Daniel Rester
Screenwriter Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard have collaborated on a number of projects now, including A Horrible Way to Die (2011) and You’re Next (2013). Their newest little genre venture comes in the form of The Guest, starring Downtown Abbey’s Dan Stevens.
Stevens plays a man named David who shows up on the doorstep of the Peterson family. He claims to have served in the military alongside their late son, Caleb, who died in the war in Afghanistan. The parents of the family, Laura (Sheila Kelley) and Spencer (Leland Orser), soon come to trust David and invite him to stay for a while. He then gets closer to the other Peterson kids, Anna (Maika Monroe) and Luke (Brendan Meyer), though Anna soon finds out there is something fishy about David.
Fans of 1980s thriller-horror genre flicks will likely love The Guest. The film very knowingly honors the tropes of such similar material and winks at the audience with its playfulness with such conventions. The filmmakers did a similar thing with You’re Next, though that was more of a full-blooded horror film.
The Guest is different in that it relies more on psychological thrills for much of its runtime. Both films show that Barrett and Wingard really like to play guessing games with the audience, though, which is a smart move and gets the audience more involved. They have a way of making you think you know exactly what is coming, and though some of their stuff is predictable they always make the outer edges have a bunch of surprises.
The film knows it is ridiculous and exploitative, and it has fun with that idea. The cast is okay and some of the dialogue is clunky, with the characters filling in type roles, but that’s all part of the entertainment here. What keeps the film from falling into a pit and being an extremely bad genre pic is the skill Wingard brings behind the camera and Stevens’ excellent performance.
Wingard expertly balances the tension and dark humor of the material for much of the film. I loved what he and Barrett did with the first 45 minutes or so, leaving us wondering if we should root for David or not. Wingard really knows how to set up moods with small character actions and use of tight settings and color choices. His soundtrack in the background is also full of synth-heavy tracks, which lends itself well to the atmosphere.
Stevens is dynamite in the lead, making David a charming creeper who is sometimes likable and other times villainous. The actor does a lot with his eyes and small smirks here, and it’s completely effective. The back-and-forth between him and Monroe and Meyer is also strong, with all three actors helping to make these oddball new relationships believable; seeing David help Luke with some jerks at school is especially hilarious and exciting.
Where The Guest lost me was in the second half. Everything up until then is more reserved and tense, but then the film starts to go downhill. The script’s explanation for David’s actions are half-baked and don’t make complete sense. Maybe the filmmakers did this in order to maintain some mystery, but it instead comes across as unsatisfying. The movie also just gets dumber, meaner, and bloodier as it moves along, with a final shot that is just silly.
It’s funny because the first half of You’re Next is meh and the second half is great in my eyes. It’s the opposite here. I feel like Wingard and Barrett haven’t completely found a way to balance out their building of tension and then the release of tension through action. Though their material and delivery often seems uneven because of these varied results, they still very much know how to please a certain audience.
The Guest is half great and half dopey in my eyes, so I can’t completely dismiss it. I definitely recommend it to fans of these types of exploitation pics, but I think casual moviegoers will be less pleased with it. Either way, though, there is no denying that Stevens is an actor to look out for. And I look forward to whatever Wingard and Barrett cook up next.
Score: 2 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B-).
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality).
Runtime: 1 hour and 39 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: September 17th, 2014.