The Guest: RETRO REVIEW!

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By: Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)

British actor Dan Stevens is becoming a hot commodity in Hollywood lately, with his work on Legion and Beauty and the Beast being some of the most prominent. Many people also know him from Downton Abbey. But in 2014, he was in a horror/thriller flick called The Guest. Despite a smaller budget and a more limited release than many films, it was actually kind of awesome!

The Guest was directed and edited by Adam Wingard (Blair Witch) and written by Simon Barrett. These names might sound familiar if you’ve seen You’re Next. Basically, The Guest is about a soldier named David (Dan Stevens) who shows up on a family’s doorstep claiming to be a good friend of their recently deceased son. He ingratiates himself with the entire Peterson family, but everything may not be as kosher as it first seems. As with any R-rated thriller, mayhem and chaos become the order of the day.

While the film is ridiculously entertaining, it is not without its flaws. (Don’t worry. None of those flaws are attributable to Stevens. He’s practically perfect in the role.) While The Guest was clearly pitched as a thriller and it’s no surprise that the guest, David, is going to be trouble, the presentation of that threat lacked subtlety in some ways. Even if viewers know there’s more than meets the eye, they deserve the cultivation of suspense. Unfortunately, part of the problem in lacking subtlety is due to the music. Music is a great cue for viewers. It can alert you to something about to go horribly wrong. It can let you know that everything’s fine. It should be a tool to enhance the story unfolding on the screen. However, the music of The Guest tries too hard to make the audience suspicious of David. Let’s be honest, a performance from Stevens is totally capable of standing on its own. Throughout the entirety of the film, the music more often distracts from the story than adds to it. It’s clear that Steve Moore was trying to create a sound that paid homage to 80s psycho thriller movies, much like the movie itself attempts to do. But sometimes less is more, and Moore made the mistake of being just a tad too on-the-nose to be enjoyable. A little tease of the thriller’s theme is preferable to throwing it in the audience’s face (or ears). Again, subtlety might have been the better way to go.

My only other complaint about The Guest is that very little is revealed about the central character of David. The first cut of the film reportedly told David’s story more explicitly, but test audiences felt they were getting too much information. Barrett and Wingard were pleased that the audience felt such a way, because they wanted their titular start character to be ambiguous. While ambiguity can be a useful tool in creating a mysterious character and to keep the viewers in the present moment, a little more background might have been nice. The writer and director were correct in maintaining the mystery, because a full exposition wasn’t necessary. However, a backstory told with subtlety (there it is again!) has the potential to enhance the audience’s connection with the character and enrich the story.

Where The Guest really shines is the connection with David. He is simultaneously and impossibly the protagonist and the antagonist. Stevens manages to portray the military man as charming, polite, and warm. Soft-spoken with a Southern accent and immaculate manners to boot, it’s no surprise that he manages to be quickly accepted by the family. (Honestly, I’m still baffled at how a British man made an American accent sound so silky smooth. Impeccable work!) Because of the likability Stevens infused into the character, when David goes dark side, it becomes all the more disconcerting. Like flipping a switch, Stevens flips his character between nice and psycho, one second giving a charming smile and the next a deadpan face that seems to seep with anger. (I was constantly torn between “He’s so nice!” and “Creepy. So. Creepy.”) Interestingly enough, when David begins to cross the line (it’s a slow burn, folks), you still find yourself rooting for him. He does questionable (and terrible) things, but it seems that he believes he’s doing everything he can to help, fulfilling a promise he made. It actually makes it hard to hate and villainize him. The little backstory you get about David also makes you sympathize with him and the man he might have been if not for the interference of a certain program. And when Stevens hilariously makes exasperated and annoyed facial expressions during action scenes, you just want to shout, “I get it, man. What a hassle, right?”

Overall, the film was enjoyable. It didn’t require deep thought or a complicated plot. The Guest doesn’t take itself too seriously, but embraces the horror/thriller mold it is in. The Guest definitely had a Carpenter-esque horror film quality to it, and the final scenes assuredly land the film solidly in 80s action flick territory, giving a knowing nod to its predecessors.

Honestly, The Guest is kind of awesome. Make some popcorn and settle in to give it a shot! And if you don’t believe me, check out the 90% “fresh” rating the movie has on Rotten Tomatoes! Plus, Dan Stevens. Seriously.


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