Written by: Simon Barrett
Directed by: Adam Wingard
British actor Dan Stevens elevates Adam Wingard’s thought-provoking and emotional mystery thriller to bloody awesome levels.
Though The Guest isn’t exactly a title free from spoiler potential, you’d be hard-pressed to make accurate guesses as to what ultimately becomes of a family willing to let a stranger into their house when he claims to be a close friend of their son Caleb who was recently killed in the war in Afghanistan. Even if you are particularly adept at mentally tracing the rough outline of a conclusion still unwitnessed, good luck coloring it in as well as Wingard’s continued collaboration with screenwriter Simon Barrett does.
The Guest, simplistic in its structure but anything but in terms of how it bathes its own guests in psychological discomfort, is definitely better because of Stevens. Though, Barrett’s script admittedly takes us to some interesting places. I have a bone to pick with those last two words, though. Those interesting places are still spaces we’ve seen many an actor in years past inhabit but for a brief flash only to then fade again. Whatever happens to the generic — are their creations rendered redundant in the face of superior genre films? Does A no longer count if B comes along and does it better? More relevant to what we’re talking about here, should we be concerned The Guest roots itself in questionable — albeit in the context of this story, understandable — human behavior?
Wingard, young and eager to prove his burgeoning talent, takes some risks in depicting degrees of emotional and psychological vulnerability. His project begins on shaky legs. The opening scenes are rushed and feel (taste?) slightly undercooked. But his destination demands greater attention. No matter your thoughts on what transpires over 70-ish minutes, the final 20 or so will command exactly that. Perhaps its Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser as the rather wooden parental figures that allow skepticism to arise sooner than it should (i.e. right out of the starting gate).
Or maybe doubt is sprung from some sort of scale we internally create in realizing how everything just pales in comparison to Downton Abbey‘s dapper Matthew Crawley. Dan Stevens as the enigmatic stranger beholden to the unseen soldier, save for a photograph set atop the stone mantel above the Peterson’s fireplace, is in good company when considering the likes of Ryan Gosling’s strong but silent type in Drive; Jake Gyllenhaal’s talkier but arguably more deranged journalist Lou Bloom; Robert DeNiro’s delirious cabbie Travis Bickle. But when the truth is finally revealed, it’s clear no one can really put David Collins into a corner. As a character, he may be cool but the thespian possesses so much power in his voice alone — never mind those washboard abs, heyyy-ohh!!! — he threatens to overtake the screen.
It’s the kind of breakout performance that will be his own challenge to outrun; Gosling only now seems a little more sociable since his days with Refn. May only God forgive Stevens for taking a second shot at becoming the unsettling, yet disconcertingly charming type.
Similarly disconcerting is The Guest‘s tendency to leave one questioning a few details along the way. Plot developments seem to turn conveniently but aren’t so obvious as to be off-putting. There is a notable divide in performance quality between the titular character and the several other main characters, but nothing comes across as too cheesy. Most importantly, such gut-wrenching adherence to real emotion and real settings, banal as a few of the latter are, overwhelms and leaves little to question in terms of the director’s intent. Wingard intended to provoke a startling mixture of empathy, dread and revulsion. We empathize with the Peterson’s plight, while dreading what their decisions may cost them.
Wingard’s generation of suspense is exquisite and if You’re Next was entertaining in that regard, his most recent effort certainly ups the ante.
Recommendation: I haven’t even mentioned the Drive-esque soundtrack. So, there’s this to consider beyond The Guest‘s incredible lead performance, it’s mood and psychologically revealing depiction of a typical American family being stuck between a rock and a hard place. (I’m sorry for being so vague in this review; if I give away more info about it the shock of the experience will be greatly reduced.) If you want to know more about this film, be my guest and rent this as soon as possible. I refuse to say more.
Running Time: 99 mins.
Quoted: “You did the right thing. I don’t blame you.”
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