Sometimes a film has the opportunity to decide, within a split moment, what genre path it’s going to take. ‘The Guest’ is one of those types of movies. It has everything in its arsenal to be this grand, Blockbuster action flick, and yet it chose to dial all of that down and become this slow burn of a psychological thriller, and for the most part it succeeds because of it.
While watching ‘The Guest’, I couldn’t help but call to mind films like ‘The King’ and ‘A History of Violence’, two films that I feel ‘The Guest’ pulled influence from, both in tone and in construction of prose. There’s a coolness here though, a real modern flare of tonal effortlessness and undeniable swagger that permeates this film, giving it an air of ‘Drive’ while evoking the great works of Jean-Pierre Melville (if you aren’t familiar with his exceptional contribution to French cinema, Google him now). ‘The Guest’ doesn’t hit every mark, mostly due to a few script issues, but so much of this works that it almost doesn’t matter.
And MY GOD, Dan Stevens is incredible here (but more on that in a minute).
How many films have we seen now where the main protagonist/antagonist introduces himself as a friend of a deceased family member only to wreak havoc on innocent lives in the process? A lot of them. It’s extremely predictable at this point. The moment that David shows up in the Peterson’s lives, we know that trouble is eminent. We don’t know, or expect, how much trouble, and I have to say that I wholly commend writer Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard for having the…gall…to go as far as they did with this movie.
They went far.
The film follows David as he imposes (without given the impression of imposition) on the Peterson family, claiming to have served with their son and been with him with he died overseas, and claims to have made a promise to him that he would look after his family. Laura, the deceased’s mother, is immediately taken with him and offers him her son’s bedroom for as long as he needs it. The rest of the family is skeptical, for a while at least. Soon, David’s cool charisma wins them over and they are invested in him and his journey until Anna, the daughter, uncovers secrets she would do well to ignore.
Cue the bloodbath and watch the Peterson’s world crumble in the last twenty minutes of the movie, culminating in some of the richest, most intense visual identity I’ve seen in a film in a very long time (that layer of smoke on the floor gave me heart palpitations).
There are snags here and there, especially concerning the clichéd way in which David’s storyline is broached (I mean, experiments, really?) but the way that the actors and the director tackle every moment here is jaw-dropping. The supporting cast does well with the material, with Maika Monroe coupling her angsty teenager with her paranoid abrasiveness well, but really, this is all about Dan Stevens. I feel shamed to say that I had no idea who he was before this. I’ve never seen ‘Downton Abby’ (I know, I know…I need to) and so his name meant nothing to me…until now. This performance is EVERYTHING! He reminded me so much of Matthew Goode in last year’s ‘Stoker’, and we all know how much I loved him in that. This performance is everything that Ryan Gosling SHOULD have done in ‘Drive’ (I loved the film, but was always underwhelmed by his performance). The way that he shifts from manipulative nice-guy to calculated killer is incredible to watch…the facial shifts, the narrowed eyes, the widened grin, and when his backstory is revealed it makes so much more sense. It’s such a layered and complex performance and one that could have easily fallen off the tracks and delved into absurdity or even campiness, and yet Stevens never allows that. He has complete control over every tick, and it works. He’s absolutely terrifying.
With stunning cinematography (especially in those final scenes) and a score that is pitch perfect for this kind of film, ‘The Guest’ is the kind of film you wish would get more attention. I mean, why are people flocking to see those Transformer things do the same thing they did in the last five movies? Why don’t general audiences even KNOW about this movie?
I hand this a B+, mostly because I expected more from that backstory, and I felt like the way the undercover ambush scene, from a logistics perspective, was handled was rather sloppy, but the scene itself was GOLD, and what it led to (that Halloween creep-out) was just incredible. Dan Stevens for Oscar, except he won't because Oscar isn't that cool.