I went into The Guest (2013, directed by Adam Wingard) more or less blind. I had no clue what it was about or if it had good reviews or anything. For someone as immersed in movie culture as I am, this is highly unusual. Oh, I know Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett's other films. Barrett is a native of my hometown and he usually brings his films to our local arthouse, so I had an inkling of what to expect, but I was mostly wrong. This film is more polished than any of their other productions (including You're Next, which got distribution from a major studio). There's obviously more money involved. More than that, though, there's a more disciplined approach to the filmmaking itself. Gone are the mumblecore performances and wandering hand-held camera. I wouldn't call this slick--it's much too rooted in pulp traditions for that--but it is certainly goes down easier.
The story here follows "David," an Iraq veteran who seeks out the family of his buddy, Caleb. Caleb has been killed and he made a promise to deliver a message to his family. He ingratiates himself with Caleb's parents, Spenser and Laura, and little brother, Luke, but it's his sister, Anna, who views David as something dangerous. Oh, she has lustful thoughts--and who wouldn't? David is all cut abs, blond hair, and impossibly blue eyes--but there's a cruelty to him that seemingly only she can see. Soon enough. David sorts out the bullies who have been tormenting Luke at school with extreme prejudice. At a party with Anna, David asks one of her drug-dealing friends if he can get a gun for him. When that transaction takes place, David kills everyone involved. There's a lot of killing to come. Anna's suspicions are confirmed when she calls the military to confirm who David really is, but that turns out to trigger a conflagration. David, it turns out, is the product of some kind of experiment, a super soldier gone mad, and one the contractors who made him want to kill. David's defensive reaction to coming under siege is extreme...
The Guest is the sort of exploitation film that used to line the shelves of video stores in the 1980s. Its a weird hybrid, the sort of film you'd get if you crossed First Blood with The Hitcher and salted it with The Stepfather or Smooth Talk. It's a deliberate throwback, one that wears its influences on its sleeve. Its surprisingly subtle about this, though. It's not a film with a lot of in-jokes littered throughout its running time. It's more a film that has been constructed of the tropes of its influences without the need to label them. Barrett and Wingard are obviously students of the genre, but they're not obnoxious gits about. There's love, sure, but there's also an identity of their own making.
This is the first film in a while that really grooves on the menacing possibilities of sunlit vistas. It plays like it takes place in some kind of depopulated, existential wasteland, even if that wasteland is only the mundane look of New Mexico, where it's set. It also plays up the creepiness very good-looking men can sometimes embody. Dan Stevens--he of the piercing blue eyes--is gorgeous as David, but its a gorgeousness that's lit from within by madness and dark purpose. He's menacing from frame one, but he hides it well with polite manners and an aw-shucks grin. Stevens is as close to an actual movie star as Wingard has ever had in one of his films, and he milks the hell out of it. The soundtrack cue over the title card clues us in that "the guest" is a monster. The various actors who play the Petersons--particularly Maika Monroe as Anna--have an unforced naturalism to them; a deliberate mundanity, even. This provides a strong contrast against which Stevens's strangeness leaps off the screen.
This has a satisfying frenzy of violence in its third act. This part of the film is more Rambo than slasher film, but the climax, taking place as it does on an empty prom floor, a haunted house maze, and a hall of mirrors, pushes the film resolutely into the realm of the horror film. This makes clever use of a fog machine and an even cleverer use of bloody footprints. Wingard stages all of this with studied confidence and he's usually spot on the money.
Is this representative of the malaise of the 21st Century security state? An indictment of the post-9/11 fetishizing of the returning soldier? If it intends any of this, it's a muddle, because its central figure is inscrutable. I don't want to speculate on the meaning of all of this, because I'm not entirely convinced that there is one beyond a certain veneer of a specific pulp style. I don't mean that as a criticism, either, because as a pastiche of that style, The Guest manages to make it live. That's not an easy thing.
Current Challenge tally:
Total Viewings: 13
First Time Viewings: 9
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