[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The Guest opens today in limited release.]
From 1974 to 1988, director John Carpenter was pretty much unstoppable. His films were scary, funny, strange, and thrilling. Adam Wingard’s The Guest feels like a lost Carpenter film from the director’s golden age. The picture effortlessly moves between a nerve-wracking mystery to a gleefully dark comedy, and at its best it even mixes the two together. While Wingard carries the Carpenter-esque tone by making excellent use of Robby Baumgartner’s cinematography and Stephen Moore’s score, his greatest asset is Dan Stevens’ tremendous lead performance. And even when the picture starts to get away from Wingard, it never ceases to be an entertaining ride.
Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley) is grieving over the death of her son Caleb when a man arrives on her doorstep claiming to be his army buddy, David Collins (Stevens). Even though he sports a little bit of handsome stubble, David’s attitude is completely clean-cut. He’s polite, charming, helpful, and quickly wins over the family, which also includes bullied son Luke (Brendan Meyer), rebellious daughter Anna (Maika Monroe), and frustrated husband Spencer (Leland Orser). However, as the ominous music and David’s intense private stares into the middle distance tell us, he’s hiding some deadly serious secrets.
Wingard happily plays with the audience throughout the picture. David seems just as likely to be the family’s dark defender as he is to murder them in their sleep. However, this split personality only enriches the film further as there’s a constant sense of dread for the innocent Petersons but also the hope that although David is incredibly dangerous, he’s on their side. It gives the picture the leeway to have it both ways like when David helps Luke deal with bullies in a way that’s exciting but absolutely brutal.
Part of the entertainment value comes from the proudly retro tone. Anyone who’s a fan of the action, dread, mystery, and dark comedy featured in Carpenter’s filmography will feel right at home in The Guest. It’s not easy to create a sense of giddy anxiety, but Baumgartner perfectly captures the charming and dangerous aspects of David’s personality, and Moore’s music is probably going to be one of my favorite scores of the year. It’s so 80s, but in the best way possible.
It all resolves around the pure charisma from Stevens. It’s always good to be cautious when saying an actor gives a “breakthrough performance”, but anyone who sees his work here will likely have a positive reevaluation of the Downton Abbey star. To watch him balance both sides of the character is a delight, and the picture isn’t quite as lively when he’s off screen. He carries David’s charm and menace with equal measure as his boyish grin can win over anyone in the room and his dead-eyed stare can chill the blood. It’s also impressive that he never overdoes it and remains centered even when the picture starts to go off the rails.
When the mystery of David’s origins is inevitably revealed, Wingard and writer Simon Barrett attempt to raise the tone to match the heightened stakes. Unfortunately, this leads to the picture becoming too dark and too silly. The story feels deflating in its more serious moments and when the action cranks up, it becomes a little too corny to the point where even one of the characters has to roll his eyes at what’s transpiring. But the picture never implodes and stays entertaining from start to finish.
Plenty of directors try to capture a retro feel or pay “homage” to a particular director, but the results can feel forced and parasitic. The Guest doesn’t have that problem. It’s an absolute blast that will keep you smiling from ear-to-ear, especially if you’re a Carpenter fan. However, the film can still be appreciated on its own terms if for no other reason than Stevens’ performance. Whichever way you want to slice it up with the butterfly knife you keep at you on all times because no that isn’t weird why are you looking at me like that, The Guest is a devilishly good time.