Saturday, September 20, 2014

THE GUEST Is a Badass, Twisty, Pulp Thriller


- Director Adam Wingard is quickly becoming a favorite filmmaker. I loved his previous film, the surprisingly fun and clever horror movie You're Next. That film was marketed as a run-of-the-mill home invasion flick, but it turned out to be a twisty, funny, subversive, smart genre-bender that gave me the same sort of giddy cinematic thrill as classics like Evil Dead. It was one of the big movie-going surprises of last year. So I was pretty psyched for Wingard's follow-up, THE GUEST. And luckily, the movie does not disappoint. Wingard switches genres in this one, going from horror to action/thriller. But the DNA of the film is clearly the same as that of You're Next. Wingard is exciting as a director because he clearly loves playing around with genre and messing with audience expectations. On many levels, THE GUEST feels familiar. Stylistically it calls to mind classic 80's-era pulp movies. With its pulsing synth score and ominous tone, it clearly pays some level of homage to the works of John Carpenter. But in many ways, the film feels new and unpredictable. It subverts expectations at every turn, and squarely aims to shock you with its many sharp-left-turns. So many films today feel homogenized and by-the-numbers - with stories that unfold as if in direct response to market testing and four-quadrant appeal. But here, we get to sit back and get caught up in the simple pleasures of rock n' roll filmmaking - storytelling that is designed for the sole purpose of thrilling an audience and delivering awesomeness. I guess I can sum it up by simply stating that both You're Next and THE GUEST are infectiously fun - both got my creative juices flowing and made me want to go and write and make stuff and test the limits of what could be done within their respective genres.

To say too much about the plot of THE GUEST would be to ruin the fun. But the basic, initial premise concerns a soldier named David (Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens) who pays an unexpected visit to the home of his fallen comrade-in-arms' family, the Petersons. David ingratiates himself with the parents of his slain friend, telling them that he had promised their dying son that he'd look after them. David is invited to stay with the family. He helps mother Laura with chores. He drinks beers and acts as a sounding board for father Spencer. And he acts as big brother to outcast teen Luke, helping him deal with school bullies. In short order, David is a beloved member of the Peterson household. Beloved by all, except for older daughter Anna. The 20-year-old has some suspicions about David (offset, at first, by her crush on him). She wonders: is David, perhaps, not quite what he seems?

The mystery around David doesn't play out how you might expect. Like I said, the movie seems to take great pleasure in messing with its audience, and creating multiple "WTF" moments where things suddenly veer in some pretty crazy directions. The pacing of the movie is also seemingly designed just to screw with expectations. The movie teasingly lingers in certain scenes, raising the expectation that the other shoe is about to drop ... only to pull back and prolong the tension. Then, suddenly, the film will smash-cut into some giant tonal shift and the effect is jarring, but also a lot of fun given the element of surprise. The movie leaves you with a constant feeling of "where is this all going?" But in a good way. Trust me.

Dan Stevens really does a fine job here as the enigmatic David. He's asked to pull off a monumentally tough task - paint a portrait of who this guy is, all while keeping his exact nature a mystery. But Stevens deftly hints at David's true self, letting the cracks in his well-maintained facade occasionally show. It's a captivating turn - calling to mind that of Ryan Gosling in Drive. In fact, the entire movie evokes Drive's 80's-throwback aesthetic and hypnotic, music-video vibe. Like Drive, THE GUEST is 80's-grindhouse pulp as art-film homage. Nu-wave cinema that self-consciously subverts and twists the conventions of B-movie action films and thrillers.

In You're Next, one of the most interesting subversions was the way in which Sharni Vinson's character proved to be more than meets the eye. There's a similar trick pulled here with Maika Monroe's resourceful Anna. Again, don't want to spoil anything - except to say that Anna is another Wingard female lead who has more to her than initial impressions might indicate. Give credit to the script by Simon Barrett, which keeps revealing added layers to its key characters as the film progresses. Monroe is a great find, and really nails the part of Anna. Similarly good is Brendan Myer as teenaged Luke, whose complicated relationship with David proves to be one of the film's most fascinating dynamics. I also, of course, have to mention the presence of the great Lance Reddick in the film. Reddick, much missed by me since Fringe went off the air, is the best in the biz at playing the stoic badass - and he does so here to pulpy perfection.

What's interesting about THE GUEST is that, despite its pulpiness and B-movie aesthetic, there is also, I think, some potentially interesting social commentary at play here as well. Wingard has some things to say about war and America and the military, and the movie provides some interesting ideas to mull over post-watch. To that end, there is also a lot of humor in the film - a lot of social satire and a lot of deadpan, self-aware quirk. Again, it's all about having fun with genre and genre conventions, and sort of knowingly subverting things and pushing the limits of storytelling.

The film perhaps is a little too flippant in terms of what it ultimately reveals about its lead character. A lot is kept vague and/or left to the viewer's imagination, and occasionally, potentially interesting plot-points get trampled over by the movie's need to constantly shock and surprise. I guess what I'm saying is: as much as I admire Wingard's enthusiasm for eliciting "WTF" audience reaction, I do also wonder if, by that driving the film, he's ever-so-slightly sabotaging the movie from being as great as it could be. I could see a version of THE GUEST that, were it a little less inclined to wink at the audience, might actually be a stronger film. 

But man, in terms of sheer B-movie badassery, THE GUEST is pure pop entertainment. Wingard, similar to guys like Tarantino or Nicholas Winding Refn, joyfully genre-mashes in a way that embodies the pure joy of cinematic storytelling. The film features plenty of thrills and plenty of insane, over-the-top action. Individual scenes are often mesmerizing, unfolding in trippy, psychedelic fashion. But what's most fun about the film is the anything-goes rock n' roll attitude. By-the-numbers this is not. Always excited when a movie like this comes along, and even more excited to see what's next from Wingard.

My Grade: A-

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