Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: "The Guest"

Director: Adam Wingard
Runtime: 100 minutes

Trading in meta-horror for more traditional thriller fare, You're Next duo Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are back with The Guest. Though sincerity isn't a trait that runs through Wingard and Barrett's films thus far, The Guest does see them paying straightforward homage to a genre, rather than deconstructing it. In their latest, they have conjured up a gloriously dumb throwback to the John Carpenter-esque horror/thrillers of the 80s, complete with a delightfully charming and menacing turn from former Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens. It lacks the winking smarts of You're Next, but The Guest proves that when it comes to B-movie thriller fare, Wingard and Barrett know how to stay true to a genre's roots while tweaking it just enough for the 21st century.

The Guest certainly doesn't waste any time in putting things in motion. Opening with Stevens' David running along a dusty Midwestern road, only moments later he's at the door of the Peterson family. With his aw-shucks charm and his piercing blue eyes, David has no trouble convincing parents Laura and Spencer (Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser), that he served with their recently deceased son in Iraq, and became his closest friend. He's even in a photo of the dead son's platoon, smiling with a machine gun on his shoulder.

Naturally, David has no trouble cozying up to the family and making himself useful in unexpected ways. He helps the Peterson's youngest child Luke (Brendan Meyer) deal with some high school bullies, and even manages to bond with suspicious daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) after a stressful night at a party.

As with similar charming mystery figures, the role of David requires a certain unassuming, placid confidence, and Stevens proves to be ideal casting. The posh accent and dapper clothes are gone, replaced by the look of boy-next-door who may or may not be capable of snapping someone's neck in the blink of an eye. Stevens admitted that he eventually grew somewhat bored of his character on Downton Abbey, and at times it showed rather painfully. Here, however, he seems reinvigorated as a performer, capturing David's vaguely sinister sense of optimism with just the right touches of camp.

And while most of the Peterson clan (as well as their friends and neighbors) may be total saps, Maika Monroe does quite well distinguishing herself as the only person to never fully believe in David's story (even when she catches a glimpse of David's physique fresh out of the shower).With a look that falls somewhere between Greta Gerwig and Dakota Fanning, Monroe's low-key flippancy is an added gift, and further solidifies The Guest's success as an effective homage.

However, with so many expected developments obvious from the outset (of course David isn't going to be entirely who he appears to be), Wingard and Barrett sometimes get a little too high on channeling certain styles, and let the plot stagnate. At 100 minutes, The Guest does outstay its welcome a bit, especially since it gets everything set up so quickly. Wingard and Barrett make the whole adventure knowingly dumb fun, but they also take too long to get to the real turning point of the narrative. 

So when it comes time for the explanation of exactly who David is, The Guest comes uncomfortably close to tripping over its own shoe laces as it crosses the finish line. By now, the particulars of David's backstory have been so overdone that it's underwhelming to see Wingard and Barrett not add anything into the mix. Though Barrett's script refrains from coming to a halt solely for exposition, a little more than the basic motivations would have cemented The Guest as an even more admirably loopy piece of work. Thankfully, the actual finale is mostly a success, with the climactic set piece moving from action-thriller into firm horror territory, complete with a perfectly designed maze of sorts for folks to run around in while avoiding death. 

Stylistically, Wingard and his technical collaborators have upped their game, with the photography and set design being standouts. Faded neons add a off-kilter glow to the otherwise plain desert setting, and the color variety expands nicely once all hell starts to break loose. The throbbing electronic score is another plus, and makes The Guest feel like a perfect mix of modern and retro thriller atmospherics. Like David, The Guest looks the part entirely, even though it has a few glaring red flags. It may not have the meta smarts of You're Next, but The Guest - in large part thanks to Stevens' chilly and charismatic work - succeeds as a mindless little slice of empty calorie cinema.

Grade: B-

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