Review: 'Downton Abbey' star Dan Stevens goes mad in delirious throwback 'The Guest'
PARK CITY - If John Carpenter made "The Terminator" for Cannon Films in 1987, it would be "The Guest."
And it would rule.
One of the hardest things to do with a film where you decide to wear your influences on your sleeve is making something that feels genuine. I like each half of "Grindhouse" to different degrees, but there's never a moment in the complete assembled 3-hour experience where you're not keenly aware of both Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino winking at you. I just recently caught up with "Machete Kills," and it's the same thing. Robert isn't remotely pretending that his film is the real thing. It's a goof. It's fun, but it's also somewhat disposable because of how knowingly ridiculous it is.
When Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett decided to make "The Guest," what they got right from the very start is the way they approached it. There was a point about 45 minutes into tonight's movie where I felt like I was sitting in my living room as a teenager, stoned silly on Florida ditch-weed, watching some lunatic thing on Cinemax at 3:00 in the morning and wondering what the title was and how I hadn't seen it already. It feels authentic from start to finish, and yet it is knowingly funny all the way through. I'm sort of amazed that they walked the line as carefully as they did, and that they end up pulling it off so well.
Barrett and Wingard have, of course, been here the last few years with "V/H/S" and "V/H/S/2," and they were also the writer/director team behind "You're Next," which I had such a good time with at Toronto a few years back. They are fun filmmakers, and that's actually a fairly important word these days. I'm not sure when it became uncool to simply aim for "fun," but it's almost like even when people do genre films, they feel the need to make them something more, to prove that they're not "just" doing genre. I appreciate that at times, but I think it's possible to do it to the point where you forget that part of the kick of something like this is that crazy tickle you get when something's just plain entertaining the hell out of you.
I've never seen even five seconds of "Downton Abbey" and before tonight, I wouldn't have known Dan Stevens on the street if I'd seen him. But he is front and center in "The Guest," and he is outstanding in the title role. He plays David, a soldier who shows up one day on the doorstep of a couple (played by Leland Orser and Sheila Kelley) who recently lost their son in Afghanistan. David tells them that he knew their son and he promised him when he died that David would check up on them to make sure they were okay. Anna (Maika Monroe) and Luke (Brendan Meyer) are Caleb's brother and sister, and they each react in different ways to David's arrival. Luke is bullied, a timid kid who could use an older brother, particularly one who is a killing machine bad-ass, while Anna is starting to pull away from her parents and she is suspicious of this stranger.
Wingard tips his hand pretty much right away that something is wrong with David, but just what they're up to is unclear until about the halfway point, when the film suddenly takes a left turn as stark and disorienting as anything in "Cabin In The Woods." When I realized what movie I was actually watching, I started laughing, and I think I laughed for about three straight minutes of insane exposition from A.J. Bowen and Lance Reddick. I was so delighted to see what game they were actually playing that I don't think I stopped smiling again until the end of the film.
Stevens has a great ability to turn on the charm in one moment, then drop it and go deadly serious in the next, and the way you're never sure what's actually coming out of David is one of the film's pleasures. Wingard is totally aware of just how much fun Stevens is, too. Each time Stevens drops his mask to reveal some new facet of who David actually is, you can almost hear Wingard and Barrett high-fiving each other behind the camera. There is a giddy sense of invention to the movie, and it's told in this breathless way that is part of what makes it feels like such unashamed fun.
I have to praise the score by Steve Moore. It is a tremendous piece of synth composition and performance, and it has a stupendous sense of build and drive to it. Wingard also makes perfect use of several songs, including the Love & Rockets track "Haunted When The Minutes Drag," which really helps cast that late '80s spell over things. Wingard serves as his own editor, and this doesn't feel like any of his other movies. I honestly have trouble believing that the guy who made "Pop Skull," who I first met on a panel at Comic-Con several years ago, is the same guy who directed and cut the film I saw tonight. He has evolved so much in terms on confidence in his voice, and he and Simon seem to be a winning team. It helps that they've got Jess and Keith Calder in their corner, producers who not only share their vision but who are able to help them realize it in the right way. I can't imagine explaining this to a producer, much less having them understand what was intended. Somehow, though, "The Guest" feels like one of those moments where everyone was on the exact same totally bananas wavelength, and they could barely keep straight faces long enough to shoot it. There are strong, if brief, appearances by Joel David Moore and Ethan Embry, and Chase Willamson (so good in "John Dies At The End") not only does really solid work, the fate of his character made me cackle as the credits start to roll.
It would be incredibly easy to oversell "The Guest" to you. It is not a $150 million thrill ride with non-stop sensory overload. But it is a movie where every single dollar has been stretched thanks to genuine wit and a love of the type of material they're doing. And it is also a movie with a performance so singular that I"m not even sure I believe Dan Stevens is real. Overall, it feels like someone is playing a prank on me, like they made that film specifically to play to about a thousand of my film fetishes, and they knew I would love it. I'm not sure how you sell a movie this happily bananas, but I love that it exists, and I hope plenty of audiences get a chance to fall in love with it and soon.
"The Guest" plays again three more times before the 24th.