Welcome to the theater of the absurd. Adam Wingard’s The Guest continues the freakish formula seen in 2011’s You’re Next, a strange but fervid film that polarized audiences to the extreme. It wasn’t what they expected, and judging from the trailers for The Guest, this won’t be either. It’s the rare film that still has the element of surprise, and if you want to go in as I did — blissfully ignorant — stop reading here. It’s a delirious and exhilarating ride unlike any other in 2014, and I’m extremely grateful the marketing let me discover the film in the theater and not on YouTube. The Guest’s unpredictability is a powerful asset in a year of sequels and reboots, and the less you know going in, the better your experience will be. Know it’s hyper-violent, darkly funny, and an ‘80s throwback that’s more John Carpenter than John Hughes. Wingard fetishizes oddness with a tongue-in-cheek fervor that’s, frankly, intoxicating, and if there’s a film that you should avoid spoilers for, it’s this one.
Dan Stevens, most recognizable as the dapper middle-class suitor on the massively popular Downton Abbey, convincingly plays American Army veteran David Collins. He has a promise in his pocket to help the family of close friend Caleb Peterson after he died in combat. Collins tells the Peterson family he was instructed to tell each family member what they undoubtedly wanted to hear most: that Caleb loved each of them and thought of them every day, even until the end. With a cordial charm, a thousand dollar smile, and bright blue eyes, he’s a handsome and instantly trustable person that we, like the members of the Peterson family, place our total trust in. Caleb’s mom, Laura (Sheila Kelley), welcomes him like a proxy son, and it isn’t long before she’s convinced David to stay in her son’s old bedroom. David’s welcome is warm. Caleb’s bullied but seemingly indifferent brother, Luke (Brendan Meyer), soon calls him a friend. It doesn’t take long for the initially apprehensive dad (Leland Orser) to confide his troubles, and the alternative sister (Maika Monroe) eventually becomes a victim of his good looks. He’ll politely turn down a beer only to have one later on, giving off a sense of approachability and discipline. But the more time he spends in the mourning home, the more we question if he’s a wolf in Army’s clothing.
In recent movie memory, the easiest point of comparison is 2011’s cult classic Drive. Like Refn’s stylish neo-noir, The Guest has the ‘80s on its mind. They also share a similar main character. Ryan Gosling’s now iconic The Driver bears significant resemblance to David Collins: blond, slicked back hair with short sides, blue eyes, and a distinct, pointed jaw. They share a penchant for staring out into space and speaking only when necessary. David is considerably more likable and warm, but both are chillingly good at finding creative ways to hurt the human body. The sound of the ‘80s — the synthesizer — pulses through each film’s soundtrack and in both cases acts as a brilliant stimulant to what’s on screen. The psychedelic super-saturated cinematography of Drive is also on display here, especially in the film’s gorgeously photographed final stretch. While Drive evokes a certain mood, The Guest is a genre film with a coat of many colors. Its list of influences is cumulative of every type of 1980s B picture, riffing off everything from The Terminator and Halloween with touches of Cronenberg and Evil Dead. The kaleidoscope of influences should have seemed schizophrenic and disorienting, but instead it’s an exhilarating mixtape of genre and form that’s ridiculous fun.
Stevens gives a star-making performance, not because the performance itself commands spectacular range or mastery — this is not the stuff that wins Oscars — but because he electrifies the screen by merely being on it. He elevates the material through sheer charisma, and he steals the screen. This guy has screen presence, and after a turn like his in The Guest, and after giving a performance so different and so strong a performance in Downton Abbey, you better get used to seeing him.He’s going to be everywhere. He lifts a couple character traits from by what all accounts is a thin characterization, and spins it into a complex and absorbing lead that’s one of the most fun characters to watch all year. His performance is a tightrope walk of tone and inflection where one false move is failure. He oscillates between good ol’ boy charming, downright creepy, believably threatening, and camptacularly over the top without ever breaking a sweat. Wingard directs each line reading with impressive tonal precision, which often radically changes multiple times within a single scene. The Guest’s range of tones can be a nightmare for an actor, but Stevens makes it seem easy.
The Guest is a roller coaster of laughter and shock, and few films are as self-aware of their innate absurdity as this one. Horror films typically conclude within a confined spooky setting, where a character, usually given an imposed handicap, is hunted by a predator (think Silence of the Lambs) through dark hallways. This is called the “haunted house” ending, and has become a staple of horror for decades. In an amusing heavy wink to genre fans, a large chunk of the film’s final stretch takes place in an actual haunted house. It’s always clear Wingard delights playing with convention, and he asks the viewer to join him.