The Guest (2014)

Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Cinematographer: Robby Baumgartner
Composer: Steve Moore
Cast: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Ethan Embry, Leland Orser.

I’ve always enjoyed movies that play with genre and blur the lines a bit, if executed well. Whenever talented people are behind and in front of the camera, they can take something and elevate it in unexpected ways. The Guest could so easily have been just a crappy movie, but the very talented people who made it helped keep it from falling apart at the seams. Especially impressive given that the writer and director (who usually work together) come from the mumblecore movement, which I am definitely not a fan of, and churned out a fun and thrilling movie that owes more to slasher movies and grindhouse films, while managing to feel modern and of today.

Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, but a far cry from his days playing Matthew Crawley) is David. David shows up one day at the Peterson household presenting himself as a fellow soldier who served with Caleb Peterson, who had died while serving his country. The family welcomes him and takes him in – still grief stricken, they are glad to have someone who can comfort them, tell them stories of Caleb, and serve as an emotional substitute for their dead loved one. There is something a bit off about David, though. His warmth, his friendliness, his presence all give off a somewhat disturbing vibe. There is a falseness in his eyes, which betray an otherwise welcoming and comforting smile. David is handsome, helpful, and affable, and his willingness to go the extra mile puts most of the family at ease, with the exception of eldest daughter Anna (Maika Monroe, It Follows). She never quite buys David’s story, and when she begins to look into him and his story she unknowingly rings a bell that will have disastrous consequences. The film takes a bizarre science fiction-esque government conspiracy turn that never quite works, but the fast pace and hyper violent second half of the film somewhat make up for this.

Visually the movie is quite interesting. Once David is unmasked, and the movie goes from being a thriller to a horror, the color scheme also follows suit. The storyline is basic and quite predictable, but it’s clear the filmmakers are very aware of this, playing it up and winking at the audience. Foreshadowing is overused (there is much to do about a knife that cannot not be used later on in the film), there is literally a maze that has to then come into play as the scene of the final showdown. Even though highly predictable story-wise, the movie still surprises. Specifically in terms of victims and casualties the movie knows how to play with audience expectations – and this is a strength of the movie, a movie that often runs the risk of falling off the rails.

I didn’t have too high of expectations before watching the film, which is probably why I enjoyed it as much as I did. Stevens does a good job at shedding his former too-nice persona, and his physical transformation is quite impressive – no longer the chubby, affable British heir he is most famous for playing. The film is on Netflix and makes for a fun, Friday night viewing. A true popcorn thriller for the post 9/11 age.

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