The Guest is enjoyable as a fun, muscular action movie about a super soldier gone terribly wrong and wreaking havoc in the lives of an unsuspecting family. The Guest is spectacular as an entry in the canon of films quietly using genre as a delivery system for smart social critique.
Downton Abbey hunk Dan Stevens is David, a soldier who shows up on the doorstep of a family who lost their son, Kaleb, in the Middle East. David says he knew Kaleb and he was there when the soldier died; David has arrived to fulfill Kaleb’s dying wish, which was to tell his family he loved them, and to help them any way he can. And that’s where things start to go very wrong, as David’s way of solving problems usually involves violence.
David represents the whole recent history of American interventions, especially the misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US military always goes into situations with the best of intentions, but people always end up getting killed. David truly wants to help Kaleb’s family, but his training is in killing; freeing the people of Iraq was a noble goal, but the military deals with most issues with the barrel of a gun, or a bomb from a drone. It always goes terribly awry.
Stevens is simply amazing; he’s miles away from his Downton character, playing David like Captain America if Steve Rogers wasn’t the kind of good man he is. He’s extraordinary in the action scenes, but he’s even better as the clean-cut soldier with a menacing feel just under the skin. Stevens is so good that it’s very easy to find yourself rooting for David, even as his violence gets insanely out of control.
The Guest is the latest film from You’re Next duo Adam Wingard (director) and Simon Barrett (writer). Gone is the loose improv nature, and this time Wingard has figured out how to hold his camera steady - which is especially welcome in the well put together action sequences. The Guest is a low budget movie - the kind where a strike force shows up in two SUVs - but Wingard doesn’t let the limitations hobble his impactful, fun action sequences. John Carpenter is the obvious comparison - The Guest uses Carpenter’s trademark title font, and it’s scored to a pounding synth - but Wingard takes cues from modern filmmakers like Edgar Wright, especially in a terrific bar fight sequence. You don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to make action scenes work, you just need good actors, well-written characters and a vision for the violence.
There are a lot of comparisons to 80s films being thrown around about The Guest, but don’t let that trick you into thinking this is some kind of aesthetic throwback. The Guest is a modern movie, but one that has a sensibility that feels a bit like a return to a lost form. It’s tight and smart and often very funny, and except for one misplaced info dump scene, it’s the best written movie from Barrett so far.
Action movies don’t have to be dumb, and The Guest - even when it’s being a touch arch - is always smart. You don’t have to engage with the film’s commentary to enjoy it, but the statements Barrett and Wingard are making elevate The Guest from a fun, good time at the movies to an example of exactly how genre should be used.