Guest, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/04/14 12:14:40
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT FANTASTIC FEST 2014: Initially, "The Guest" almost seemed like a step back for the team of writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard. It introduced a pleasant enough cast and set up a kind of familiar "stranger in the house is more dangerous than anyone knows" situation which the group was good enough to make go well, but it lacked the zing of "You're Next". And then a thoroughly unremarkable scene starts a chain that gets Lance Reddick involved. After that, it's still the same movie in a lot of ways, but it gets bigger and crazier, just flat-out exciting.The stranger is David (Dan Stevens), who introduces himself to the Petersen family as a comrade-in-arms of the son that died in the Middle East, saying he'd check in on them if he was ever in the area. The family - mother Laura (Sheila Kelley), father Spencer (Leland Orser), bullied younger brother Luke (Brendan Meyer), and sister Anna (Maika Monroe) - react with the expected mixed emotions, but he seems sincere and helpful, though most don't realize how violently helpful he has been. So Anna isn't entirely suspicious when she calls the Army looking for a little more information, but David's name gets the called flagged and sent to a mysterious defense contractor, who dispatch a no-nuance troubleshooter (Reddick) to the area immediately.
And that's when the movie becomes a real kick, to be honest. It wasn't bad before, but it looked like it was going to be as close to a typical indie thriller as to team is capable of (or one of the things pointed at young adults built around the star's handsomeness, often just as bad), a very familiar story told competently but forgettably. Thankfully, it doesn't stop there; it gets just big, nuts, and self-aware enough to drop jaws in a good way. The kills are neither treated as a perfunctory narrative necessity nor something the audience is meant to whoop and cheer for, and while the filmmakers go for a very familiar plot point, the portion size is just enough that the action becomes bigger than life but not big enough for the audience to check out.
Of course, scaling and execution are kind of intertwined for action, and it's kind of shocking how good Adam Wingard got at staging an action scene once he graduated from shoestring to indie budgets, as well as starting to work from scripts (by Barrett) that skew a bit more mainstream and less confrontational than his earlier work. This and You're Next are how this type of action thriller should feel, though - fast-paced, built like anything could happen next, with enough work put into the technical niceties that said anything always looks good. The 1980s peak of John Carpenter is a clear enough reference point that you can't help but mention it - the wide-screen framing, synth-heavy score, and chaste approach even when sexuality is driving a scene are right there - but there's a twenty-first century half-grin at times: The filmmakers know the tropes but are going to make them sing rather than mock them.
That's the tone that the actors strive for and mostly hit as well. Dan Stevens is absolutely playing as character too good to be true, but he's ingratiating enough as David that the audience is willing to buy into it, and he can turn menacing without a complete gear shift unless such a thing is warranted. It's what makes a character enjoyably nuts but also intriguingly dangerous. Lance Reddick plays Carver with a similar amorality, but also an entertainingly brusque attitude that actually leads to some funny moments. Maika Monroe is an appealing Anna - engaging and clever and able to get the audience to simultaneously believe she's out of her league but able to rise to the occasion.That "The Guest" didn't get a wider release is not quite puzzling - it's just off-kilter enough to need more careful handling than something that looks like a very conventional B-movie is going to receive - but it is a shame. It goes through some familiar motions, but better than most films of its type, and the fun the people involved clearly had doing it transfers to the audience.
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