Cinematic Releases: The Guest

Adam Wingard's The Guest has been playing in limited release. Find out what we thought. 

"I think my shirt is stuck in my mouth
Would you like to dig it out
with your tongue?"
Let’s get it out of the way: Horror has found its Quentin Tarantino, and his name is Adam Wingard. A filmmaker head over heels in love with the movies he grew up with, Wingard’s knowledge of 80s slasher films and thrillers is clearly encyclopedic. He knows how to respectfully pay homage in ways genre fans will cheer over, but creates something more than a derivative mashup. This is a fully realized and stylishly energized thriller that ranks among the best films of the year.

Consider the setup: A handsome drifter played by Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) shows up on the doorstep of a family that recently lost one of their own to the war overseas. The stranger introduces himself as David, produces a photograph of the Army unit he served in with their son, standing with arms around each other’s shoulders; it helps his cause that the photo already existed on the family’s mantle. He’s confident, polite, says his “yes ma’am’s,” listens to everyone’s problems, shares a few beers with the dad, and carries messages of love from their deceased son. Why not let the young man stay for a few days?

What's better than a hot
Maika Monroe in a waitress outfit?
A whole bunch of them.
As the archetypes and back stories of the characters are fleshed out, we can draw certain conclusions based on the films Adam Wingard and his writer Simon Barrett have learned from. When we meet the distraught parents played by Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser, we know they’re looking for a surrogate to ease the pain of their loss. We meet their younger son Luke (Brendan Meyer), a geeky misanthrope in a baggy hoodie who is routinely victimized by the football team’s king jock, and the relationship dynamic practically writes itself, as the combat-trained David befriends the limp-wristed lad. But Wingard and Barrett are too smart for that, because they know we’ve seen all the same movies. They use our own film going nature against us and take us on one hell of a ride, using the cliches we’ve come to expect as their weapon of choice, following them through with a strange logic to conclusions that are sometimes scary, often surprising, and oddly hilarious. This has more laugh out loud moments than most pure comedies.

A film like this requires performances to be calibrated just right, and Dan Stevens brings it like none other. He’s creepy, mysterious, charming, funny (but not too funny), charismatic, all in the exact measure and alternating strokes the film requires. Stevens flashes a James Bond gaze one way to an attractive brunette, beds her in minutes, and the next moment, he’s leveling a glare at the camera that could make the shit in your pants shit its pants. It won’t win any Oscars, but this is a performance for the ages.

With a presence as commanding as Stevens, we know a villain is only as good as his nemesis, and The Guest provides us a great one with Maika Monroe as Anna. A plucky blonde, ferocious with attitude, and drop dead gorgeous to boot, Monroe is what you would get if you crossed Kat Dennings with Brie Larson, gave her Larson’s acting chops, and took away Dennings’ uncanny ability to annoy the ever-loving snot out of anyone not distracted by her chest to the point of hearing loss. Monroe and Stevens share a lot of screen time together, and when they aren’t saying much is when the film is saying it all. This is good stuff.

"Oh look! The masks from
Halloween III."
The Guest comes on the heels of Wingard and Barrett’s last feature length collaboration, You’re Next, a terrific exercise in style that had one of the most memorable kills in recent years. This time, they top themselves. Giving their performers room to put the characters first, they create a film that strays outside of their comfort zone just enough for it to still be a snug fit while we can still see their toes dipping into new waters. This is top-notch work: Darkly comic and thrilling while being completely absurd and so entertaining that it doesn’t matter. But in the end, this film belongs to Dan Stevens. This is a star-making performance that will surely catapult The Guest into the realm of cult classic, and squarely on to a list of the ten best films of 2014.

-Blake O. Kleiner