This past Memorial Day I watched several movies, one of which was Adam Wingard’s 2014 genre homage, The Guest. This movie succeeds for me because I completely had this movie pegged wrong. And I loved that fact. I was expecting at least an interesting twist on the serial killer thriller genre staple, and to an extent that’s exactly what I got; however, there is a level of “cuckoo banana bonkers” that I found in this movie that made me all warm inside.
The story is about a family who is still mourning the loss of their oldest son, who died in Iraq while serving his country. They are visited by a stranger, a stranger who we see hauling ass with a 20-30 lb. ruck on his back mere minutes before, and he seems to have hardly broken a sweat. Already this dude freaks me out – if he ain’t pantin’ for breath and pouring sweat, I’m suspicious. But, those are my hang ups and have nothing to do with the narrative’s weaknesses.
The aforementioned near perfect specimen of athleticism is David, a former comrade in arms of the family’s fallen son, Caleb. This guy, David, has an icy stare but oozes charm with a “yes ma’am, no ma’am, golly gee” kinda way, and he just about melts the heart of the mourning mom, Mrs. Peterson. Oh, before I forget, this flick has a great cast of character actors, many of whom you might be like, “Oh, hey, where do I know them from?” or “Oh sweet! S/He is in this!”
The titular character, The Guest, a.k.a David, is played by Downton Abbey alum Dan Stevens. I’d only known him from the Abbey, and completely forgot about that role when I watched this movie. He completely owns this movie. Like, from the moment we see him running down a semi-rural road, this dude is in charge. And the parents are played by two fantastic actors, both of whom are primarily known as character actors, which is a shame because they can both act circles around many. The father, Mr. Peterson, is played by Leland Orser, and his wife is played by Sheila Kelly. I could watch these two just play off of each other, passive aggressively working through their grief, but the movie only gave us so much of that, which is a shame. You may recognize Orser as Liam Neeson’s SpecOps comrade in arms in the Taken trilogy, and you may recognize Kelly as one of the ensemble in Cameron Crowe’s Gen X romcom, Singles.
While the two younger children are also featured in the narrative, and they both do pretty good jobs carrying their weight throughout the movie, I just wasn’t as invested in them. The daughter, Anna, is played by Maika Monroe, and the younger brother, Luke, is played by Brendan Meyer. Both do such a great job with their assigned roles, both in the movie and in the genre. They are the smarter-than-the-narrative audience surrogate. Each thinks that they know better than the other, seeing through plot conventions, but ultimately are proven wrong. I won’t spoil how they’re proven wrong, one more so than the other, but they both pay the price.
This is a nice homage to some of the “drifter killer” movies from the 80s. There are some genre director flourishes here and there, nothing too obvious, but nothing too esoteric. A lot of the atmosphere is created by the rural setting and lighting of scenes. I don’t know why, but I guess having lived through the 80s and 90s, knowing those lighting cues, and having watched my fair share of these types of thrillers, I’m sort of tipped off to seeing and expecting that vibe. The closest vibe for the tone that I can peg for this movie is that it seems like an extended episode of the old HBO anthology series The Hitchhiker. That show was prime 80s sleaze and genre goodness, complete with T&A and gore. And this movie has plenty of tension throughout, some kind of humorous tension, and other times just like, “holy shit, someone’s gonna get their face shot off” kind of tension. It’s good stuff.