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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review: The Guest

David Collins seems to be the perfect soldier. No, not like a super-soldier. More like... he's everything we want our veterans to be. He's polite, soft-spoken, protective, and honorable, a man's man with the guys and a puppy dog with the ladies. Immediately after being discharged, he heads to the home of recently-deceased squad partner Caleb Peterson, whose parents and two younger siblings are still grieving their loss. He has a message from Caleb for them, and while he's in town, he wants to do what he can to help around the house. Soon, he's become a surrogate brother to a nerdy young boy, a surrogate son to grieving parents, and a nonjudgmental friend to a troubled girl. But people around town - people who have done the Peterson family wrong - are starting to disappear, and it's becoming harder and harder to ignore that something seems very, very wrong about the family's new guest....

Played by Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens, David Collins is part Captain America, part Terminator. His luminous blue eyes are gentle and seductive, until the moment they're completely dead, looking at the people around him like they're bags of meat, only periodically allowing sparks of real, genuine life through. It's a fantastic performance from Stevens, an actor who was always fairly milquetoast on Downton, and it's not the film's only one. Also impressive is Maika Monroe, the requisite Final Girl and the only member of the family who isn't immediately charmed by their guest, at least until she sees him getting out of the shower and her hormones take over. Monroe's character, Anna, begins the film as a fairly stock character, the sarcastic small-town waitress who dreams of something more, but Monroe gives her a lot of soul - and, just as importantly, plenty of grit.  

Less impressive is Lance Reddick (The Wire), the film's Dr. Loomis figure, who is given precious little to do besides escalate the problem at hand. Reddick is the only one who knows what's really going on, but director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett didn't make this to talk about what's really going on, which barely factors into the story at all. The Guest is about a lot of things - atmosphere, some surprisingly subtle character work, tension - but its barely-there plot isn't one of them. And that's fine; to me, Collins' arc and his relationship with the Petersons is far more interesting than whatever trite military-industrial conspiracy is faffing about in the background.

In some ways, you could view The Guest as a slasher film where the slasher is, at least for awhile, the good guy, the family's protector. Wingard and Barrett get a lot of mileage and a good few laughs out of the idea, particularly when Collins starts to mentor the family's bullied youngest son. Collins only knows one way to solve a problem, so he becomes a hammer in a town full of nails, and his awful advice reflects that point of view flawlessly. But The Guest is not a political film at all, easy as it would have been to nudge it in that direction; it's nothing more and nothing less than a group of smart, savvy film nerds riffing on The Terminator and having a blast doing so.

The Guest is a very good action thriller, and Wingard's inspirations are sure to draw in a lot of genre film fans. Pulling equally from John Carpenter and James Cameron, Wingard & Barrett have crafted a tense, funny crowd-pleaser in the vein of their excellent You're Next. Don't expect to see this on many Best of 2014 lists; do expect to see it as a Halloween cult classic for years to come.

The Guest is currently available to purchase on Amazon Instant Video, and comes out on blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios on Tuesday, January 6th. Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, The Guest stars Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, and Lance Reddick.
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