The Guest is the best action-suspense-thriller I have seen since Drive.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Well, this is nice. You may have noticed that I have come to you on this website recently to repeatedly tell you that movies suck, or that they’re disappointing, or just general negative words about films that came out in August. Let’s face it, with the exceptions of Guardians Of The Galaxy and Lucy (although what exceptions they were), August really sucked movie-wise, much like the rest of the year. So I go to the cinema this weekend to see the new releases, most of which I hadn’t heard about at all until about two weeks ago, and one of them ends up being of the best films I have seen so far this year. How considerate of cinema to wake up after August and start strong, eh?
The Guest is an action-suspense-thriller that proves, should there be any doubt, that you don’t need to re-invent the wheel to make a great goddamn movie. It is pretty much what you’re expecting and not much else, but it is so, so good at what it is that I honestly do not care. What it is is a story about David (Dan Stevens), a veteran who has returned home from active duty, after having been discharged due to injury, and has appeared on the doorstep of the Peterson family having supposedly served with their departed son in his regiment. He takes it upon himself to look after the family and attend to their whims, becoming a confidant to father Spencer (Leland Orser), teaching youngest son Luke (Brendan Meyer) to stand up for himself, helping out around the house for mother Laura (Sheila Kelley), and being a charming chaperone for daughter Anna (Maika Monroe). He’s basically the most perfect and charming guy you could think of… except that he has a very short temper, a nasty propensity for violence, and the very distinct possibility that he may not be being entirely truthful with the Petersons.
I feel like I should hold off playing the film’s ace for a bit longer, maybe list certain other pluses it has before going in for kill, but I really can’t talk about The Guest without talking about Dan Stevens, so screw it. This is his show and he gives the best male performance of the whole film year that I have seen so far. He’s detached without being cold, distant without being charmless; David’s always clearly not-all-there and it’s hard to get a good lock on him, but you can always see why everybody else falls for him because, dammit, there is something likeable and charming about him even when he’s losing his temper. And then he busts out his thousand-yard stare and I am pretty sure my blood temperature dropped to single digits. There are several times he does this, and every single time he does so the film’s tension shoots through the roof. The soundtrack is rather muted during these bits (not a bad thing, more on that in a bit), so it’s solely down to Stevens’ performance that these scenes end up as seat-clenching as they do; David is barely stable anyway, but when that stare comes out, it is like a powder keg has just been lit and I was sat there damn near terrified as to when it would go off. And then David would relax and go back to being a charmingly likeable if suspicious guy, again. I have not watched Downton Abbey, so this is my first exposure to Dan Stevens, but he is a tour-de-frickin’-force here and physically lifts what would have been a great film into an outstanding film. He is the ace in the hole and deserves a long and acclaimed career if this is what he can do.
Dan Stevens is not the only thing that The Guest has going for it, though. He might be the best thing, but he is not the only thing. For one, there is the wickedly pitch black sense of humour that permeates through the entire production. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, Adam Wingard (the film’s director) and Simon Barrett (its writer) worked together on last year’s blackly comic horror You’re Next (which I haven’t seen, will have to rectify that based on this), but it was nonetheless one to me when I found myself genuinely laughing out loud at multiple points during the film. It deals mainly in the absurd, contrasting David’s demeanour with the actions he perpetrates, and it does wonders for the characters of the film and its overall mood, especially in the finale. A finale, incidentally, that takes the horror undertones that sat bubbling under the surface for the prior runtime and putting them front and centre in the campiest way possible. It’s a finale that is brilliantly tense, yet knowingly silly; something that works on both levels without undermining the effect of either, the humour enhancing the tension and vice versa.
It’s also stylish but not in an overly showy way. This isn’t a film that really draws attention to its stylish nature, it just happens to be. The soundtrack and score are awash in cool yet at times menacing synthesizers, the kind that set the mood fantastically yet still have toe-tapping beats and hooks that make a soundtrack release really damn necessary, Icon Entertainment. The pace is fast yet measured, it breezes along through its 100 minutes but it’s not a needlessly speedy movie. It takes its time, setting the mood, cranking up the tension, building and building to its release in a way that lacks any flab; at no point was I waiting for the film to just get to the point because it always felt like we were at the point. The shooting style of the movie very much echoes similar 80s thrillers, which the finale, combined with its soundtrack and impeccable pacing, overtly reveals it to be a loving homage to, but it still feels distinct. It’s a throwback, yet now.
And then there are the little things. Action, what little there is (again, this is a film that works more in regards to tension than all-out mayhem) is really well-shot, favouring steady, wider shots than usual, as both a feature of that 80s throwback intention and the focus on tension the film has. Stevens may be the standout amongst the cast, but the support really punch up their roles. Maika Monroe, in particular, really sells Anna’s growing suspicion of David and, even before then, believably inhabits a 20 year-old who is sick of her parents’ stifling authority; Brendan Meyer gets the emotional centre of the film and he is more than capable of supporting it; whilst Lance Reddick (an always welcome presence) brings genuine out-of-his-depth gravitas to a role I am not planning on spoiling here. There’s also just how airtight the film is. I already mentioned how there’s no flab in the pacing, but there’s not a wasted character, not an extraneous plotline, not a pointless scene… It’s been surprisingly rare, recently, for me to find a film where everything is clearly, and does, build to one clear end goal and where I couldn’t cut anything, so this is very nice to find.
Does it re-invent any wheels? No. Does it all quite hang together upon closer inspection? Probably not, I’d need a second viewing to make sure. Is the mystery behind David really not that important? No, and the film basically admits that when it’s time for the reveal; all but throwing its hands up in the air and shouting, “Just let us have this finale, OK?” Is it going to change any lives? No. Do any of the things that I have just mentioned matter one bit? HELL NO. The Guest is what it is, a trashy, silly, lightweight B-movie, and I love it for that. Not only is it unabashed in its intentions, it’s damn near flawless in executing them and, again, has quite possibly the best male performance in any film I have seen so far this year. It is exactly what I needed without even realising that I did and, unless these last four months are world-beating when it comes to film releases, this will be one of my favourite films of the whole year. I love The Guest, I love The Guest, and I have a very good feeling that you will too. You need to see this movie immediately!