The Guest (2014) / Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality
Running Time: 99 min.
Cast: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser, Lance Reddick, Tabatha Shaun, Chase Williamson, Joel David Moore
Small role: Ethan Embry
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenplay: Simon Barrett
Review published November 14, 2014
Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett follow up their popular film festival circuit flick, You're Next, continuing to combine traditional thrills with horror tropes in The Guest. Dan Stevens (A Walk Among the Tombstones, The Fifth Estate) stars as the titular guest to a family that opens its New Mexico home to the recently discharged soldier after he tells them he knew their son and brother who died in combat in Afghanistan, who made him promise to look after his family right before he died. This stranger is greeted with initial skepticism, but then fits into the role the departed had left vacant, as he begins to help out in ways that truly benefit the family. But, there may be a deep, dark secret to this stranger that makes him more than the kind friend of the family than he might appear.
Though rife with clichés that will surprise very few, The Guest benefits from the Wingard/Barrett embracing of genre tropes, giving us a villain that can also be seen as a dark savior/twisted guardian angel, reminiscent of a few Hitchcock villains, a la The Lodger, Shadow of a Doubt, and Strangers on a Train. In some ways, it is mainly reminiscent of shockers from the 1980s like The Hitcher, The Stepfather, and even First Blood. The retro sensibilities are evident, especially in the synthy score by Steve Moore -- if there weren't modern day technology like smartphones, laptops and the like, you could easily have imagined this film coming out in 1986.
The blackly comic vibe is both a boon and a bust, as it allows for a good deal of disbelief suspension when the storyline takes a turn to become a 'rogue agent' thriller, but it also does severely undercut some of the emotional impact that could have been had when deaths begin to occur and we realize that none of these characters truly mean anything to us, despite the sympathetic build-up of many of them. As such, the setup is better than the resolution (the black ops organization elements jar with the small-scale family tension), but there's enough momentum there to get it to the finish line in respectable shape, even after a tonally turbulent last half.
Featuring a charismatic performance by Dan Stevens, and decent supporting work from a cast of mostly unknowns, The Guest will keep you reeled in to what will ultimately happen, even when it goes down some increasingly implausible alleys as it navigates its way through its hyper-stylized climax. It's a b-movie, but revels in being one, so taking it seriously could prove an impediment to what is otherwise just a lark from its filmmakers. The film's final line should tell you all about the 'WTF' tone they were going for, and if you repeat it yourself, consider it a success.
©2014 Vince Leo