Written by: Simon Barrett
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, and Leland Orser
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I'm a soldier, man. I like guns."
Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are shifty customers. Even if you're not always quite sure what it is they’re up to, they’re always up to something, and they have a wry way of letting you know it. Their films occupy a curious space between homage, spoof, and satire that makes each a slippery proposition: because they’re all so precisely-crafted and gently needle viewers instead of stabbing them right in the gut with an accompanying wink, they nimbly walk that line and exist as pure pop objects unburdened by excessive irony and nostalgia. They may be sly, but they're fresh and genuine in a way many throwbacks aren't.
So it is with The Guest, the duo’s latest genre-bending exercise. Assembled from the scraps of half-remembered late-night junk-food cable programming, it’s unafraid to nod to its inspirations (these two are among the few souls worthy of borrowing John Carpenter’s signature font) and equally fearless about subverting them. Maybe it's the unholy union of Halloween, The Terminator, and a synthesizer, but, ultimately, it is wholly, uniquely The Guest—and it is fucking awesome. It swaggers right through your brain and all but announces itself as your new favorite movie. I find it hard to make an argument to the contrary.
A variation on the thread started by You’re Next, The Guest is something of a home-invasion thriller, only the marks are painfully unaware they’re caught in the crosshairs. In fairness, the aggressor is an absurdly disarming army veteran who served with their recently deceased son. Arriving out of the blue—and with dreamy blue eyes that read as both charming and chilling—David Collins (Dan Stevens) acquaints himself with a family desperately wanting any connection with their lost son and brother. Within minutes, he’s claimed the dead boy’s old bedroom; within a day, he’s taken it upon himself to sort out the family’s issues in his own unique—and ruthless—way.
Only the Petersons’ daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) begins to suspect something is off, but even she’s initially blinded by his incredible washboard abs. On the other hand, Wingard immediately provides familiar genre clues for the audience in the form of ominous music stingers and foreboding landscapes draped dying, autumnal sunlight. Halloween decorations adorn the Peterson property, serving as both a nod and to couch the proceedings in the aesthetics of a horror film, even if the story doesn’t follow the traditional stalk-and-slash routine. Exploiting the inherent dramatic irony becomes something of a game: when David strolls into a party with a keg slung over his shoulder to everyone’s amazement, it’s subtly humorous because we know that keg could very well wind up crushing someone’s face.
But part of the fun also rests in how the film hoards some secrets. Just when the audience becomes complacent in its rhythm (which involves David royally fucking up anyone who would cause harm to the Petersons, who remain unaware that they’re harboring a maniac), The Guest pulls back and begins to shed light on David’s backstory. For Wingard and Barrett, this opens another genre avenue to explore: suddenly, the film morphs from The Stepfather to a 70s paranoia thriller, and you sense that they’re laughing every step of the way.
Not at you, but rather, at a situation that has them toying around to see just how far they can push things. They tread on absurdity, yet continue to play things just straight enough—that is such a tough, tough balancing act that requires the willingness to walk to the edge of camp and the restraint to pull back. Witness the moment David lobs some incendiary grenades into a diner: this is the part in an action movie where the hero would drop some kind of one-liner. Stevens only gives a knowing smirk. It’s sort of horrifying, thrilling, and hilarious all at once. That’s the essence of The Guest distilled down to one of its several perfect moments.
The command on display here is staggering. Formally speaking, The Guest is a monumental evolution for its creators. Working from Barrett’s sharpest script and character work to date, Wingard exhibits his most confident direction yet. Perhaps in a conscious attempt to break away from his mumblegore roots, he’s adopted a sleek, assured approach that allows each frame to burst with a transcendent vibrancy: it’s often cool for the sake of being cool. Sometimes, you want nothing more than a film that’s eager to completely absorb you in its hypnotic gaze of lush visuals and sonic ambiance. By the end of The Guest, the audience is lost in both a literal and figurative funhouse bathed in neon and scored by pulsing electronic music—I already loved it before this point, but this is when I knew it was truly meant to be. Sometimes, you just know.
More throwbacks should be as bold as and confident as The Guest. While its influences might as well be stitched to David’s knapsack, it never relies on them as a crutch. The various shades (Carpenter, Cameron, Canon Films) color the proceedings without overwhelming them, particularly because Barrett and Wingard are more interested in re-contextualizing these touchstones. In this sense, they’re arguably the purest genre-mashers since Carpenter since they seem to prize reinvigoration over deconstruction. That a mixtape plays a prominent role in this film seems apt.
To that end, The Guest takes a familiar super soldier trope (David Collins is essentially Steve Rogers if he were a lunatic) and turns it inside-out, but it seems to come from a place of disbelief. It’s almost as if they’re astounded no one’s thought about this sort of thing and are eager to watch it unfold. Its musings on the military-industrial complex and our notion of heroes reside somewhere just below the desire to watch David shoot and stab the shit out of everything in its path.
Admittedly, it feels like someone managed to plug right into my brain and extract The Guest straight from my dreams. I’m predisposed to enjoy anything that appeals to the reptilian part of my psyche especially, and this film practically set my synapses ablaze. The electronic pop soundtrack, the Halloween setting (not to mention its Halloween III reference), the intoxicating atmosphere--all of these were guaranteed to register on some level.
But what I love about it the most is even simpler: it takes the time-worn conflict between a Final Girl and an inhuman kiling machine and restages it with two of the most memorable takes on the archetypes in recent memory. Maika Monroe is terrific as Anna, a gothed-out waitress in the Sarah Connor mold (right down to the occupation)—she’s sweet and unassuming until you try to kill her. That old Godard maxim about only needing a girl and gun has never proved to be more true, though I would argue that having a smoldering psycho-hunk as an antagonist helps. Stevens is equally as fierce and even more chameleonic—his physical menace is easily captured in his violent outbursts, but he’s even more sinister when he’s verbally manipulating his targets. A scene where he intimidates the principal at a local school is just as uneasy and intense as any shootout. Like all great adversaries, you want to watch these two tangle forever. You’re almost bummed that they’re destined to battle to the death—or are they? Let’s just say The Guest saves its funniest nod towards a genre cliché for last. Essential!
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