There’s something happening to our movie heroes. Lately they’ve been undergoing a kind of onscreen vivisection, poked and explored by artists who celebrate them while examining what makes them so different from us. Filmmakers are starting to ask some interesting questions about exactly what kind of person could keep their cool during a chaotic shootout, walk away stoically from an explosion (in slow-motion, no less), or deliver a perfect one-liner after brutally snapping someone’s neck.
The makers of The Guest have arrived at a novel conclusion: our heroes are fucking maniacs.
It’s not a brand-new trend: In Observe And Report, we learn that the big, goofy loser with the terrible job, who takes crazy chances in the name of unrequited love, might be a borderline sociopath off his meds. And maybe also a date rapist. In Drive, we batted around the notion that the ice-cold getaway driver who lives by a rigid code of honor and never flinches in the face of danger might be on the spectrum. And in The Guest, we learn that the super-cool government agent who always knows the right thing to say to a woman and can handle a bar full of troublemakers with his bare hands and his wits is, in all likelihood - mild SPOILER, maybe - a terrifying, government-grown killing machine from whom any trace of empathy has been scientifically removed.
But The Guest is more than mere deconstruction. Filmmakers Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (You’re Next) insist on splicing the attractive archetype with their nightmarish, hypothetical reality over and over throughout their film, resulting in a most unique action thriller in which hero and villain share the same skin, keeping viewers simultaneously enthralled and appalled. It’s quite an accomplishment, and it’s a hell of a lot fun.
The Petersons are a quiet family not quite connecting with each other as they move through their daily routine in the suburbs. They’re living in that awkward space of uncommunicative mourning in the wake of the death of son and brother Caleb, a casualty in the war in Afghanistan. There’s a knock at the door. A handsome stranger (Dan Stevens) introduces himself as David, Caleb’s brother in arms from their days in the Middle East. He’s come, he explains, to fulfill a promise he’s made to his comrade, delivering messages of love to the members of Caleb’s family. Soon, David’s being asked to stay a while, bunking in Caleb’s room and filling the obvious void in the household. Along the way, he proves immensely useful at helping young Luke (Brendan Meyer) handle school bullies, aiding father Spencer (Leland Orser) with his work troubles, and helping mom Laura (Sheila Kelley) with household chores. He’s also lots of fun at parties. But daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) isn’t as sold as the others on David’s easygoing nature, or the way he seems to be the magical solution to everyone’s problems. She begins snooping into David’s background, suspicious that he isn’t what he claims to be. What she uncovers sets the stage for a violent, hilarious, unpredictable finale.
Wearing its cinematic influences like a chest full of medals, The Guest glides along as confidently and sleekly as its title character, all smiles, seduction and simmering menace. Expertly ramping up the tension before exploding, the film borrows colors from the crayon boxes of Rolling Thunder, Billy Jack, The Terminator, Halloween, and the Bourne films (sure, even the Jeremy Renner one). On paper, it sounds ridiculous. It might well be. But sweet Jesus, to be in the thrall of a movie that’s not afraid to flirt with ridiculousness. In the hands of Wingard and Barrett, the ridiculousness not only works, it soars, inducing many grins, gasps, and dropped jaws. The film, frequently a laugh riot, is a bizarre kind of psychotic wish fulfilment. Its makers have broken down just how terrifying, brutal and ugly an action hero might be in real life, and they’ve made us love him anyway. Shooting their action cleanly, with a lush color palette, Wingard and Barrett seem to be taking a decisive step away from their indie roots to show the industry that they can hang with the big boys. They’re 100% successful in that goal, but the real victory is in delivering their unique blend of humor and horror (the emotion if not the genre) to a wider crowd.
As stellar a job as Wingard and Barrett do here, the MVP is Stevens, who brings a chilling magnetism to the role of David. Stevens nails in David a kind of inhuman precision, not only in scenes of action or conflict, but in navigating the personalities he encounters, treating each character as a combination lock which he expertly picks. David is a rare role, allowing the actor to perform heroically or ruthlessly from moment to moment without betraying credulity, and Stevens clearly relishes this star-making turn. In the wake of this film he’ll be on every fanboy’s casting shortlist for just about any action hero (or villain) you can imagine, and nine times out of ten, he’ll be a top choice. (And yes, the role of James Bond is now officially his to lose once Daniel Craig hangs it up). Maika Monroe is equally excellent as Anna, his attractive and attracted adversary, every inch the Sarah Connor (down to the waitress uniform) to Stevens’ Terminator. (And Stevens' Reese. You'll see.)
The film’s Halloween setting and synth-heavy score will draw comparisons to John Carpenter, and that’s probably both intentional and earned. But don’t let these and other reference points, dropped easily by lazy writers like myself, fool you. The Guest is no empty homage or third-generation nostalgia trip. Wingard and Barrett may have thrown a lot of familiar ingredients into the pot, but The Guest is an original dish, with a distinctive taste all its own. The film opened in limited release last month, and goes wider today. See it as soon as you can; it’ll then be that much sooner you can drag someone to your second viewing.