REVIEW: The Guest [2014]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 99 minutes | Release Date: September 5th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Icon Film Distribution / Picturehouse
Director(s): Adam Wingard
Writer(s): Simon Barrett

“Don’t feel bad”

With my enjoyment of You’re Next and resounding positivity on the internet concerning its follow-up, I was excited to finally sit down and watch director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett‘s latest genre hybrid The Guest. Whether this fact tainted my overall enjoyment is a toss up, but it’s not like I can’t wait to watch it again. A bona fide midnight screening cult classic in the making, this thing looks great despite oozing 80s action horror flair. Rather than be poorly made and acted as most from that era unwittingly were, however, the filmmakers chose to recreate the lo-fi aesthetic, synth score, and intentionally laughable characters with tongues firmly planted in cheeks. Unfortunately, just because everyone’s in on joke thirty years later doesn’t make the result any less cheesy.

From frame one the tone is too straight. The dramatic electronic percussion underlies stranger David’s (Dan Stevens) running into town before a bright blue title hits the screen looking as though ripped from a ratty VHS cover of a B-movie from yesteryear. Knocking on the door of a family who just lost their eldest child in Afghanistan doesn’t help matters, especially when Mrs. Peterson (Sheila Kelley) must leave the living room to cry once her new house guest says he served with Caleb and was with him when he passed away. This is some depressing melodrama without a single breath of comic air cutting through. A few glimpses of David staring into the distance with murderous dead eyes makes us fear him and fear for the Petersons once his true identity gets revealed.

I thought perhaps Wingard and Barrett were going in a different direction this time, giving us a serious actioner with carefully crafted suspense devoid of the subversive strain I figured was their trademark. And honestly The Guest might have been better off if they had because it doesn’t feel genuine when that first bit of humor pokes through. Don’t get me wrong—the scene is a hoot as David helps wreak vengeance on a few senior football punks who’ve been picking on Caleb’s younger brother Luke (Brendan Meyer). Sticking it to these underage kids by buying shots for their girlfriends and cosmos for them is priceless, the brawl ensuing a welcome introduction to how violently brutal this ex-soldier is behind his disarming smile. It’s just too bad each glimpse of fun is tempered by more overwrought severity.

The film therefore languishes in a no man’s land purgatory between reality and super stylized comic book-esque vibrancy. Mrs. and Mr. Peterson (Leland Orser) are painted almost specifically in the latter’s light considering she’s clinically blind to the fact David is a horrible influence on her son and his proving a bundle of nerves whose every fifth sentence is asking their guest to join him for a drink. Whatever the reason, though, the blatant overacting of both isn’t allowed to exist intentionally despite it obviously being just that. Wingard and Barrett instead want us to take them as real human beings accepting David into the family while leaving only their daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) to question his veracity and intentions despite his sexual allure working hard to win her over too.

Attempting to keep the farce hidden after we already know it exists proves a miscalculation on the filmmakers’ behalf—one revealing them to not be as smart as they think they are. I’m not questioning their ability to make a movie that excels above its budget or even to create something enjoyable on a level beyond surface appearances, I just think they’ve underestimated their audiences’ intellect as far as understanding the joke. There’s a perfect moment for a permanent switch from drama to all-out circus around halfway through when a secret governmental program called KPG and its Major Carver (Lance Reddick) are brought to light, one whose satirical look at a Bourne Identity plotline could have really amped up the bloodshed and got viewers’ adrenaline pumping until the end credits. But it’s sadly ignored for a long stretch.

For whatever reason we’re instead sent back to the Petersons for David’s covert, systematic dismantling of their town as if we’re able to forget the climax still almost an hour away that was just foreshadowed. Right when I thought the slow start was about to payoff I was thrust back into the gradual digression on the domestic front—something I never fully invested in. Barrett does some interesting things like drawing Luke as a protégée under David’s wing, positioning him to be a wild card accomplice, but the realization of how far his new friend will go to stay alive quickly switches him back to Anna’s side. A lot of the film is similar to this where cool ideas are infused yet never brought to fruition. This truth makes the final piece all the more disappointing.

When The Guest works it’s an exhilarating thrill ride with welcome humor and the kind of on-the-nose callbacks to a way of filmmaking we don’t see very often anymore. When it’s trying to be something beyond that homage, however, it’s frustrating and even cringe-worthy of a few eye-rolls too. The hype on You’re Next set me up with too high expectations to love it more than I did, but the universal praise here wound me further to heights it could never reach. I’ll watch it again eventually with the knowledge of exactly what it brings to the table and I’ll probably have more fun as a result. Would I rather have seen more carnage courtesy of a full-on cat and mouse chase between David and Carver? Hell yes. The family stuff is sadly a bit of a bore.

[1] DAN STEVENS stars in the action thriller THE GUEST.
[2] (L-R) BRENDAN MEYER and MAIKA MONROE star in the action thriller THE GUEST.
[3] (L-R) MAIKA MONROE and LANCE REDDICK star in the action thriller THE GUEST.

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