The Guest (2014)
Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality
Score: 5 out of 5
The Guest, a retro-styled action/horror film from Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, sorta-kinda blew my ass off. The plot is simple and straightforward, but when it's this well done, producing such a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, it becomes an absolute knockout of a movie. Great performances, amazing style, incredible use of mood... this is the sort of movie that a lot of people who grew up in the '70s and '80s, watching the gritty thrillers of those decades, love to complain they don't make anymore like they used to. (Well, they don't get wide releases. You usually have to wait until after their limited runs in indie/arthouse theaters for everybody to find them on basic cable, home video, or Netflix and start raving about them. And yes, this one is on Netflix as of this writing.) Not only is it easily Wingard and Barrett's best film, edging out You're Next in my book, it's also one of the best movies of its type I've seen in a very long time. I'm gonna try and keep this review short and just tell you to go watch this. Whether you're an action junkie, a horror nerd, or somebody who just wants to have a good time, you will love this film.
Our protagonists are the Petersons, a family in small-town New Mexico who are still reeling from the loss of their eldest son, a soldier named Caleb who died in combat in Afghanistan. One day, David, a recently discharged veteran who claims to have served with Caleb and been close friends with him, arrives at the Petersons' door, offering his well-wishes and to help take care of them for a few days. Most of the family is smitten with him -- he's ruggedly handsome, he's got a friendly and charming personality, he's handy around the house, he fought for our freedom, and he's helping their teenage son Luke stand up to the kids who are bullying him in school. However, the daughter Anna, a twenty-year-old waitress, suspects that he's hiding something, especially after she overhears him on the phone talking about how he's "off the grid". When she calls the military base David claims to have come from, she finds that he supposedly died a week ago in a fire. As it turns out, "David" was part of a failed super soldier experiment, and he's now on the run -- and programmed to eliminate anybody who might blow his cover. As David starts killing people who he sees as "problems" for the family, and as a swarm of G-men led by David's former handler Major Carver converge on their hometown, Anna and Luke find themselves in for the fight of their lives.
To start with, there's the acting. Specifically, the performance given by Dan Stevens, who is utterly awesome as David. I was sure watching this that he was an all-American former football hero from the rural Midwest or Texas, and not an English actor who was on Downton Abbey and is going to be in Disney's live-action Beauty and the Beast next year (which is who he actually is), because he absolutely nailed the look, the accent, and everything else. At first glance, he is basically Captain America, an upstanding man's man and all-around really cool guy who you can totally understand the Petersons falling in love with, but as the film goes on, a streak of violent sadism emerges that sees him turn into a monster. From the moment we see him beating the asses of a gaggle of Luke's jock bullies in a bar, we know that this man is capable of terrible things, and he shows us just what those things are and then some over the course of the film, getting back up from everything that gets thrown at him almost like a slasher villain. Whenever he is looking and acting like the jolly, rugged soldier boy we were introduced to him as, there's the sense that he can go into psycho super-soldier mode at any time, and it's clear in his eyes whenever he starts getting suspicious of the people around him who might know too much. By the end, he is Jason Bourne meets Jason Voorhees. The transition between his two sides is always clear, but at the same time, it always feels natural instead of jarring. On the other side of the equation, Maika Monroe is also excellent as the barely-out-of-high-school young woman Anna who hasn't moved out of her parents' home yet. While she doesn't get as much of an opportunity to give as flashy a performance as Stevens did, instead serving as a fairly conventional "final girl", she still knocked it out of the park here, selling me on her character growing increasingly shell-shocked by the nightmare around her, especially by the third act. Between her performances here and in It Follows, I'm not surprised that she's been slowly turning into a Hollywood "it girl" lately. Lance Reddick is playing his usual badass self as Carver, while the rest of the family also does good work, especially the kid who played Luke, who's slowly corrupted by David's influence as he pushes him to become more "assertive" (i.e. violent) in pushing back against his tormentors.
Great performances wouldn't have meant much, however, without somebody to show them the way, and that's where director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett come in. Seeing their other movies next to this one, it's clear how much they love the horror films and thrillers of the '70s and '80s, especially those of John Carpenter (who was as comfortable working in the action genre as he was in horror), because that sort of style is all over this film. The synth-heavy score is the obvious point of comparison, but it's also reflected in the slow, progressive build that this film takes to its climax. This film isn't plodding by any stretch, with many early scenes dedicated to establishing David's real personality underneath his nice exterior, but it only feels like a slow burn in hindsight because of just how cranked up everything got towards the end. This isn't a movie that beats the viewer over the head with non-stop gunfire or jump scares; it doles them out conservatively, but consistently, for the first two acts so as to slowly build the stakes for the finale, with Anna and Luke slowly realizing just what sort of person David really is, all while ratcheting up the tension as we fear that anything can happen. Right up to the end, it feels unpredictable, and there's always a sense that nobody might make it out alive. And as for those who don't, this film is absolutely packed with grisly deaths. Most of them come from gunshots, but there are over a dozen of them, and unlike so many PG-13 shoot-em-up action movies, this film is flush with blood every time somebody goes down. We get a mix of bar brawls, raging shootouts, sudden attacks out of the blue, and a great cat-and-mouse finale, and all of them are intense and, when the situation calls for it, downright terrifying. It's old-school in all the best ways, with Wingard displaying a great eye for style and a steady hand behind the camera; this is a director who, like Sam Raimi and James Wan before him, is more than cut out to make the jump from horror movies to bigger-budget action blockbusters without sacrificing his own unique flair. (I can't wait to see what his Death Note adaptation is like.)
The Bottom Line:
If I may be so blunt, this movie kicked my ass six ways from Sunday. Is it all that deep? No. But it's brutal, it's simple without being stupid, and it's fun, evoking the joy of classic action and horror films past and bringing them into the modern day without missing a beat. Get on Netflix and watch this now if you haven't.