The Guest is a simple story being told in an incredibly stylish, yet unpretentious way. From the opening to the closing credits, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett let you know that this is going to be all about “mood”. The synth heavy score is omnipresent and only adds to the dread that this “guest” may not be who he claims. This film is a great example of what AW and SB do best, they take straight to video concepts and give them the top shelf treatment. This kind of flick has been made hundreds of times, but there is something special in the way this one exists.
Making an ultra-cool homage to The Terminator and Halloween is cool enough for me to buy a ticket, but what is more impressive is how hey make it entirely theirs. Anyone can snatch up tropes, play cool music and crank out a thriller. These filmmakers add so much care and nuance, setting themselves apart from the loads of other filmmakers trying to make the next Terminator movie.
The story is common but works. A man named David shows up to a family that just lost their so in combat. He integrates himself into their lives and earns their trust. Once strange things begin happening, the family starts to doubt if David is who they think he is. That description is so cliché, but the way it is handled is anything but typical.
Once the third act kicks off, some of the most bonkers twists and turns begin. Leaving the viewer slack-jawed and blown away. All the while, booming electronic music and an ominous synth score set the tone. If this isn’t what you want out of a thriller, I don’t think anything is going to make you happy. I am always jazzed to know that in an era of shitty thrillers and half-assed action films, there are still some folks out there fighting the good fight. That fight being, making A-level work out of B-level material.
Salim Garami is our first guest on Friday Fight. He’s actually the inspiration for today’s film choice because Justin was blown away that anyone could actually not be a fan of this movie. However, read on because Salim isn’t the only non-fan of this film.
Salim’s work can be read at Movie Motorbreath.
I come not to ENTIRELY bury The Guest nor to praise it. In truth, my attitude to The Guest is a miracle in and of itself: The Guest is the sole movie I saw in the career of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett I don’t hate. I’d even go so far as to say I like it. It lacks all of the obnoxious hipster cynicism that most of the Wingard/Barrett collaborations have, it’s the first movie of theirs that doesn’t look for an excuse for lo-fi construction (followed unfortunately by Blair Witch, a movie so dedicated to being a regularly edited film with bad lighting that it has no less than 9 camera sources to angle from), it has the sort of charismatic (especially for such a blank slate) lead performance from Dan Stevens that would probably make him a star if it were a higher profile release (and if he didn’t already catch eyes on Downton Abbey).
But I don’t like it to the degree that everyone else seems to hold it up to, its fans made up of separate camps: those that try to claim that it IS in fact a meta-commentary on the genre of laconic unstoppable perfect gentleman killers that popped up back in the 1980s and those who think it’s a fresh and original take on the genre and both of those don’t just seem contradictory, but they don’t hold water to me. To the very first group, all I can ever do is ask, if The Guest IS trying to say something about the genre of film it inhabits… well, what is it trying to say about it? What observation of merit does it have to give to the genre or form beyond just being another one of those outdated pictures in modern form? I’ve never received an answer when I pose that question and perhaps somebody in the comments could enlighten me. But to the second group my response is that The Guest seems to be too devoted to becoming a 1980s cinema homage, from the synthesizer score by Steve Moore to the government involvement in the plot led by the always authoritative presence of Lance Reddick, to register as anything remotely original.
Which is not the same as calling the movie bad. Re-watching it prior to prepping this guest appearance really helped me recognize how it’s a very strong and efficient entry into that story type, using Stevens as an anchor for disturbing a household without assaulting it. And alongside Stevens’ game performance – with his impersonal smile that feels like more of a default than genuinely amiable or the off-beat manner it feels like he resets character traits to fit into any social situation – it’s eye-catchingly gorgeous, the one time Wingard seems to embrace the color spectrum with his cinematography Robby Baumgartner, and gets really playful in its final act, even as it just completely collapses narratively. It’s a clever reminder that Wingard/Barrett are capable of making a good movie when they’re not acting like they’ve so very much above it like they do in You’re Next or being kind of obnoxious in their sexual politics (like in V/H/S) or just don’t try to avoid the elements of their genre’s storytelling (once again… hi, Blair Witch).
Still, at a lean 100 minutes, the movie’s not interested in doing much more than quickly embodying those genre tropes with not much life given to their characters beyond Stevens’ David and Maika Monroe’s Anna Peterson. The rest of the Peterson family – patriarch Spencer (Leland Orser), matriarch Laura (Sheila Kelley), and younger brother Luke (Brendan Meyer) – they’re all just used as extensions to “David”’s presence. Even Anna seems like that in a fashion, though the film wishes to identify her as its “protagonist” in the sense of being a good guy and yet her scenes outside of encounters with David – namely with her boyfriend (Chase Williamson) – end up feeling the most disposable out of an already pretty stingy runtime.
If the movie wants to say something about PTSD (and it feels like it wants to signal that way), it picked the most reductive genre to put that subject matter in. If it wants to be a character study, David’s too surface-y of a character to be the subject of that while even with Monroe’s performance (when Lance Reddick is the “weakest” in a primary cast and his role is something he does well in his sleep, that should tell you how impressive the cast is), the movie’s not interested enough in Anna to use her as anything except a compass as to what’s wrong with David (Luke is given more to work with and yet most of Brendan’s scenes are dominated by Stevens’ scene-stealing – the man is TOO good at his job here to let us care about anyone else).
The movie works best when it wants to address the sort of void a family deals with when a member dies (as their beloved veteran son was KIA in Iraq, whom David claims to know and enters the home under the pretense of a promise to him). David portrays the role each family member wants to have as a companion, even if it’s not necessarily someone their late son could have been. But it’s not satisfied with just being that sort of movie, its finale – fun as it is – is a completely separate movie’s climax, one that belongs in a slasher picture and desperately tries to fit into its genre clothes by contextualizing it in a school haunted house maze that is much too detailed and complicated (“Left, right, right, left, left, right, left, then straight”) to have been built by one kid in detention AND his after-school supervisor within a month, let alone a day. A diner massacre and the subsequent destruction of it is played with a somewhat comic rhythm that was one of the few times reminding me why I hate Wingard/Barrett’s work. And there’s a very contradiction in David’s logic – his actions towards the end of the film don’t seem like the thing one should be patient to perform, especially when on the run like he is, though there is an argument that the contradictions are just part of the ride that make me less willing to throw myself on that hill.
Claiming that a movie has too much ambition to be comfortable with the story it tells but too little to actually let those themes it wants to explore meet the finish line is a weird stance to have on a film, but the sum of The Guest’s attempted storylines stick out – Anna’s personal life, Luke’s bullying, etc. – all stick out without any real capability to go forward when David’s in the scene and the third act of that torpedoes all of that – especially any commentary on family it strives for by affording its characters barely any time to register the casualties of David’s actions – for a visually pleasing final chase but short on any real narrative or thematic depth that the film (or its fans) want to pretend it accomplished. And if that pretension wasn’t there, I’d have no problem with it, as it otherwise briskly goes through David’s rampage with narrative efficiency. But sometimes, something just irks you underneath about a film that nobody really wants to see. Anna saw that in David to her family’s dismissal and that’s me on The Guest with the rest of its audience very much browbeating me for not thinking it perfect, no matter how bad we want to like David/The Guest.
GARRETT SMITH: Mark my words, in a decade Dan Stevens will be an international superstar, and we’ll all be talking about his most memorable performance, the one that opened our eyes to his power on screen, in Adam Wingard’s The Guest. It’s not just my favorite movie of 2014, I think it’s probably my favorite movie of this decade, and that is in no small part due to Stevens’ excellent performance as David. For my money, David is among the all-time great movie villains, alongside Hans Gruber and Darth Vader. He’s so damn charming and likable, and yet simmers with ill intent. It’s an interesting and twisted performance that lends so much to the central mystery of the film, it feels like the whole thing hinges on his ability to scare the shit out of you while still endearing himself to you, maybe even making you laugh.
And that’s probably what I love most about the film – it’s got a very distinct tone. It captures the unsettling atmosphere of John Carpenter’s Halloween through excellent soundtrack choices and a muted set design (chock full of pumpkins), sprinkles some 80’s nostalgia in with a bit of neon lighting, and then drops a supervillain into a comically broken family unit. It somehow captures the feeling of watching a horror movie without really being one, instead using the sense of unease to create darkly comedic moments of ever building tension. And when the powder keg finally blows, and the movie comes to its thrilling conclusion, we’re only left with bits and pieces of information from which to answer any questions we might be left with. I love this approach, as I think the movie provides just enough details to allow you to defend a few different positions on the film, but not enough to be truly conclusive. If you’ve seen the film, and you’re curious about my interpretation of its events, check out my big spoilery review of the film on letterboxd.
BROOKE HARLAN: [Editor’s Note: I, Justin, hadn’t shown this to my wife yet, though I’m not sure why. I’ve loved this movie for a good few years now, so it’s kinda weird that I haven’t shared it with her, really. So now was as good an excuse as any. I’ll tell you what, I really thought she’d like it… and I tend to get her tastes pretty well… BUT…]
Sorry, but that was really cheesy.
JUSTIN HARLAN: Despite Salim’s thoughts and my wife’s bursting of my bubble, I still really enjoyed this film on my latest go round. So much of what I have to say about this film is extremely spoiler heavy, so I’ll keep it brief.
I love Dan Stevens as David. Handsome as fuck, turns from brotherly to psycho badass in a split second, and ultimately just magnetic. He’s not the best actor I’ve seen, but it’s a role that uses what he’s got very well. I really enjoy Maika Monroe as Anna Peterson, as well. Her character here intrigues me and there’s an 80s throwback vibe to her (of course, there’s a reverence to the 80s throughout this film). I really just enjoy the whole cast.
Is this film a true masterpiece? Probably not, but it’s a wonderful goddam piece of genre gold. My wife ain’t wrong, when I think about it, it’s definitely cheesy. But, for real, so am I.