Film Review The Guest

An Uninvited Film Review: The Guest

October 17, 2014Ben Mk


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Creepy Crawley...

If You're Next made you nostalgic for '80s slasher flicks, then writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard's deliriously off-the-wall followup, The Guest, will surely make you yearn for the action-thrillers of the '80s and '90s. But unlike the current crop of shoot-em-up throwbacks — most notably, The Expendables series — this sly and subversive homage doesn't deal in bombastic set-pieces and marquee names. Rather, it's a twisted and bloody romp through genre territory — one that finds an unlikely lead in Matthew Crawley himself, Dan Stevens.

   

Stevens plays David Collins, an Afghanistan war veteran whose first stop after getting out of the military service is the sleepy town of Moriarty, New Mexico. There, he pays a visit to the Peterson family, claiming to be a friend of their recently-killed-in-action son, Caleb, and is welcomed by grieving mother Laura (Sheila Kelley). A photo on their mantle showing David with her son's platoon proves he's the real deal, so she invites him to stay, despite the objections of her husband, Spencer (Leland Orser).

With his genial demeanor and quiet, Southern charm, David has no trouble ingratiating himself into the family. He even makes himself useful, helping their youngest, Luke (Brendan Meyer), give a group of school bullies their long overdue comeuppance. But when bodies start mysteriously piling up around town, daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) begins to suspect that all may not be as it appears. Finding that David's story doesn't quite add up, she attempts to dig into his past and ends up unwittingly triggering something sinister in their polite visitor.

Before you can say "Hell in a hand basket", the town is descended upon by military men — the kind who tote semi-automatic rifles, wear sunglasses at night and drive around in black SUVs, looking like they've just stepped off the set of a Michael Bay film — and David has gone from helpful houseguest to homicidal maniac. This is also where Lance Reddick (best known to TV fans for his roles on The Wire and Fringe) shows up to chew the scenery as Major Carver, a G-Man charged with bringing David into custody and rescuing the Petersons from his psychopathic warpath.

And it's at that point that the film undergoes an abrupt transformation of its own, morphing from a suspenseful, slow-burn thriller into a bloody, balls-to-the-wall genre joyride.

The final act unfurls like a mash-up of genre favorites and cult classics, with Wingard and Barrett both winking at and drawing inspiration from movies like The Terminator, Halloween, Universal Soldier and even something as recent as The Bourne Identity. The insanity of the finale alone — set in a high school haunted-house-themed maze, replete with deranged laughter and a hallway of mirrors (à la Enter the Dragon) — is worth the price of admission.

But it's Stevens — with a performance that channels the likes of Paul Walker and Jim Caviezel — that is the film's biggest and best surprise. The formerly prim-and-proper Downton Abbey star is a revelation in the title role, conjuring up laid-back charisma one moment and stone-cold, maniacal intensity the next (all while sporting a dead-on American accent). Likewise, Monroe impresses with her feisty turn, coming across as something akin to Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese both rolled into one.

The other characters aren't nearly as memorable (though it's always a welcome surprise whenever Orser pops up in a film), but they mainly serve as fodder for David and his devilish ways anyway. Then again, it's probably better that way, because the film is definitely at its best when David is behaving his worst.

The Bottom Line Taken at face value, The Guest is simply an adept action-thriller, light on its feet and unafraid to poke a little fun at itself now and again. But the writing/directing duo of Barrett and Wingard have crafted a film that's smarter than it appears on the surface, fusing together action, horror and comedy in an inspired homage to Reagan-era cinema schlock. Like its title character, the film keeps viewers guessing as to its motivations: you're never quite sure whether to laugh, cower or applaud. In the end, it doesn't matter, because you'll do all three.  Ben Mk





* Reviewer's note: Portions of this film review were adapted from my TIFF review of the film, published on September 14th, 2014.




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