The Guest (2014)

21 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As “The Guest” begins, David arrives unexpectedly on the doorstep of the Peterson family. He announces himself as a friend of the parents’ eldest son. They served together in combat. The son had been killed in combat. This stranger is polite, possesses good manners, speaks softly, and tells the grieving family that he’s here to look out for them. They let him in. He earns their trust. They welcome him into their home to stay for a while.

All of this happens within 24 hours, and it may sound hurried and a little too trusting. But if you encountered this guy, played brilliantly by Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” fame, you’d immediately trust him too or at least want to get to know him. He’s so confident, calm, and quietly funny; he’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind sharing a drink with at a bar. It’s to Stevens’ credit that he’s able to deliver that balance of “trusting” and “dangerous.” (And I also give him props for not leaving a trace of his British accent, as he sports a Kentucky accent in this movie.) I say this because once you have gotten to spend more time with him, you can tell there’s something a little off about him. Nowhere is that clearer than when you first see him alone in a room, as his assuring grin turns into a terrifying glare.

There has to be someone in the movie who notices this too, right? Well, the parents (Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser) are so grief-stricken, they’ll easily accept a friend of their late son as friendly. The teenage son, Luke (Brendan Meyer), idolizes him after he protects him from some bullies. That leaves the teenage daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe), to become suspicious. (Though, at first, she fights her own suspicions, as one would before things are all too noticeable.) She gets a clue that he’s not who he says he is and follows that lead to figure out his true story.

“The Guest” can be seen as a predictable thriller-horror flick, as you know David’s nature is secretly violent and his true colors will show by the end of the middle act, and you also know which characters are most likely going to die. But surprisingly, there are a lot of things about it that make it entertaining, thrilling, and memorable, so that it’s not your typical slasher flick. One is Dan Stevens, who’s just great here as a strong blend of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider and the Terminator; he has the compelling screen presence that goes beyond playing the perfect British gentleman on “Downton Abbey.” He’s charming in some scenes, badass in others, and sometimes even both. Another is the direction of Adam Wingard and the screenplay by Simon Barrett (both Wingard and Barrett previously collaborated on the horror send-up, “You’re Next,” a couple years ago). The whole film serves as somewhat of a genre tribute, having fun with callbacks to action flicks, horror films, and political thrillers, and also because it has a sense of humor. But at the same time, it’s not self-indulging or even referencing other films blatantly—it has its own identity; some scenes, I could see as moving the film toward cult-movie status. The filmmakers are clearly having fun with this film, especially in the final half. After building up the tension and introducing the characters with a steady pace, all hell breaks loose as they’re thrust into a fun lengthy climax of violent mayhem. Military police are involved, bullets fly, the body count rises, there’s a bloody encounter at a restaurant, and best of all, there’s a climactic chase in a Halloween funhouse maze.

It also helps that the characters are developed in a convincing way. When Anna and Luke are in danger, I fear for their lives because I got to know them and care for them. Both Maika Monroe and Brendan Meyer deliver great work here.

Overall, “The Guest” is a lot of fun. Even when I can find things to dislike about the film, I find they strangely work in its favor. Sometimes it’s silly, sometimes it’s scary, and mostly it’s flat-out entertaining.

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