Directed by: Adam Wingard
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Ethan Embry, Joel David Moore, Lance Reddick, Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser, Brendan Meyer
All too often we see a filmmaker show great promise in their early work, only to witness them continue to eke out a career that never fulfils that potential. Over the past decade Adam Wingard has been making enjoyable but ultimately forgettable genre movies, leading us to believe he would never break through the glass ceiling and deliver something that can't be so easily dismissed. It's with great pleasure I can report that Wingard has well and truly shattered that ceiling, leaving us doubters to pick shards of glass out of our cynical hides.
On the surface, there's nothing original about The Guest, another installments in the mysterious stranger sub-genre, but Wingard and writer Simon Barrett draw on all the entries that have gone before, from Hitchcock's The Lodger to the Stepfather series, and deliver one of the best pieces of genre cinema to emerge from the US in the past two decades. A touch of black, but organic, humour makes it stand on its own, like Hitchcock directing a script by John Hughes, Uncle Buck by way of Uncle Charlie.
David (Stevens) arrives at the New Mexico home of the middle class Peterson family. At first he ingratiates himself with the family matriarch, Laura (Kelley), claiming he served in Afghanistan with her killed in action son. She invites him to stay a few days, to the initial chagrin of the rest of the family. Her husband Spencer (Orser) doesn't like the idea, worried their guest may suffer from PTSD, but after sharing a few beers and drunkenly airing his grievances about how his employer treats him, David quickly becomes Spencer's best buddy. Son Luke (Meyer), a socially awkward teen, warms to David after he deals with some school bullies that have been making his life hell. Daughter Anna (Monroe) thinks he's a dreamboat, especially after seeing his ripped torso, but remains suspicious and begins to investigate David's claims.
In these digital times, it's great to see an analog movie like The Guest. There's no CG, no green screen, no camera moves that defy physicality. It's a film that could have been shot 30 years ago, and indeed feels like a genuine product of the eighties, much more so than any of the several recent movies set in that decade, like Cold in July or Ping Pong Summer, despite its contemporary setting.
Wingard, like John Carpenter and Howard Hawks before him, employs a form of film-making that's invisible, and there are no showy camera moves to distract you from the story, plot and characters. Those three elements all work together in unison here, something so rare in today's post-plot, post-story, cinematic landscape. Barrett's script is subtly plotted, so we never notice how it's manipulating us, allowing us to get wrapped up in the movie's characters without distraction.
The ensemble cast is roundly great but Stevens steals the show, without ever over-acting. Downton Abbey fans will be familiar with his previous work, but this reviewer had only seen him in an unremarkable turn in last year's Summer in February. I'm still struggling to comprehend how those two performances could have come from the same actor. Not since American Psycho have I been so gripped by a new actor, and I'm sure Stevens will repeat Christian Bale's path to stardom.
There was a time when American cinema churned out movies like this, but in today's cynical, smart-ass era film-makers seem unwilling, or unable, to make a genre movie without commenting on the fact that they're making a genre movie. As such we get movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Sin City 2, films that seem to be ashamed of themselves and constantly ask their audiences for affirmation with postmodern self-referencing. While The Guest feels like a product of a more innocent era, it never explicitly references any earlier works, and never winks knowingly at its audience. This is a film that's unashamedly proud to be a genre movie, and so it should be, as it's the best thriller we've seen in a long, long time.
By Eric Hillis