Take an old school style slasher picture and cross it with an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Then mix in Jason Bourne and The Terminator. And finally throw in a little bit of Lifetime family drama and you’ve got Adam Wingard’s giddy, bloody, exciting genre concoction known as “The Guest.” It’s a self aware B-movie, for sure, but unlike Robert Rodriguez’ self aware B-movie “Sin City: A Dame to Kill for”—from a few weeks ago—“The Guest” is highly inventive and always keeps you on your feet.
Wingard—and writer Simon Barrett—made a splash last year with their film “You’re Next,” another self-aware B movie focusing primarily on the horror genre. While it certainly provided a couple good thrills and cheeky moments, for me, it was a movie that thought it was being smarter than it actually was. It may have contained plenty of gore but it lacked in twists and innovation. Not a bad movie by any stretch but one that was given more credit than it deserved. The same can’t be said for “The Guest.”
It begins on a calm but ominous note; David (Dan Stevens), a recently discharged soldier, goes to the house of Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley) saying that he knew her son Caleb—who was killed in action—and that before he died he told David to come and check on his family. It’s a sweet, touching moment; still vulnerable and mourning the death of her son Laura welcomes David into her home almost impulsively. Just then, in blood red, the film’s title flashes on screen accompanied by horror movie bass. Five minutes in and Wingard already suggests that something sinister is lurking beneath this seemingly mundane situation.
But after that brief interlude, it’s back to the mundane family drama. We’re introduced to the rest of the Peterson family; the father Spencer (Leland Orser), the daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) and the youngest son Luke (Brendan Meyer). Within a few days David becomes a welcomed member of the family, fulfilling multiple roles that were violently taken away with Caleb’s passing. To Laura, he serves as the closest connection to her dead son. To Spencer, a guy that he can b.s. and have a beer with after a long day at work. And to Anna and Luke, an older brother figure, a stern responsible companion who can also watch out for them. Help them in a time of need. Everything seems to be going well, perhaps too well. Strange incidents begin to happen—accidental deaths, mysterious phone calls, etc.—and soon Anna begins to wonder if David is who he really says he is.
As far as plot is concerned, that’s all I want to say because, like Steven Soderberg’s own Hitchcock-ian thriller “Side Effects” from last year, “The Guest” continually changes shapes and genres. You never know where the picture’s going to go; just when you think you have it figured out, Bam! It takes an outrageous left turn. And yet, it does it in a coherent, organic way. “The Guest” is also violent. But Wingard doesn’t just throw in violence for the sake of it and he increases the action and violence gradually so as not to fatigue us early on. By the end, the movie reaches extreme levels of violence—violence that I won’t spoil here—but it feels appropriate and deserved because we haven’t been bombarded with it constantly. And in this period of watered down, PG-13 violence it’s nice to see “The Guest” employ bold, visceral hard R violence. In the first and maybe best action scene, David teaches a group of teenagers a lesson who’ve been bullying Luke by beating them to a pulp in a bar. Wingard not only shows us this fistfight but also makes us feel every single punch in our gut and not a lot of movies would have the courage to show an adult beat up minors.
“The Guest” is also funny. Damn funny. Wingard and Barrett know not to take this material completely seriously but at the same time the movie isn’t full on comedy. Very few directors can walk that narrow tightrope between drama and humor—Quentin Tarantino is one who comes to mind—and with only having a few other films to his name Wingard achieves the balance near perfectly. A lot of the time the violence and the comedy overlap; during an abrupt burst of violence you find yourself laughing out loud. Is that right? You bet it is. Like Tarantino, Wingard knows when to and when not to make violence cartoony and amusing. But for scenes between David and Laura, and certain scenes between David and Anna or David and Luke, he shows restraint and thoughtfulness, treating them seriously.
Even with all of this giddy violence and twists and turns, Wingard and Barrett keep the focus of the movie on the characters. We care about Luke and Anna, and we especially care about David. Stevens—known mainly from “Downton Abbey—is the best part about “The Guest.” His David is charming, understanding, mysterious, trustworthy and of course not trustworthy. The character changes as the movie does. In some ways he resembles Ryan Gosling’s character from “Drive,” a helpful, honorable warrior who doesn’t draw too much attention to himself, prone to sudden fits of intense action. However, David’s motivation for doing most things often remains unclear.
Most of the time you don’t know what he’s thinking or what he’s going to do next; one minute he may be comforting Laura or giving Luke some good life advice, the next he will put someone’s head through a wall or malevolently stare off into the distance. Sometimes all Stevens needs to do is shoot you a look, a look that nearly drives you crazy: “what’s he thinking?” And best of all, as the movie goes on and he does questionable things he still remains somewhat likable. David never turns into a one-note despicable genre movie antagonist. You may not be rooting for him by the end but you always remain invested in him.
“The Guest” can be rough around the edges at times; some of the supporting performances aren’t that great. It’s not a very profound movie or full of hidden meanings but it’s one of the few purely entertaining great movies of the year so far. It has the element of surprise, something that’s hard to come by in most movies these days, Wingard keeps the action going at a steady pace—not letting scenes linger too long or going off on tangents— and Steve Moore’s synthesizer score pulses and vibrates along as Wingard ratchets up the tension and action. And finally, it’s simply an easy movie to watch and enjoy and one that, when I walked out of the theater, I wanted to watch again. Great movies should be able to be watched again and again.