Reviewer amped over synth pop nightmare “The Guest”

by Andy Weston

westonan@mnstate.edu

A film that is bound to divide viewers, “The Guest” offers a high dose of ‘80s nostalgia and thrill.

The story starts with the titular guest, David, showing up on the doorstep of the Peterson’s residence in an attempt to connect with the family of a fellow soldier who died in action. After oozing just the right amount of charm, David is invited in by Laura, the grieving mother of David’s departed friend.

Once inside, David helps to relieve some of Laura’s grief by relaying a message of love from her son. Soon other members of the family are introduced, each dealing with problems of their own.

Laura’s husband Spencer is struggling with his career and unable to support his family.  Meanwhile, their son Luke endures a severe lack confidence, being bullied at school and now lacking a role model in the form of an older brother.

The final member of the Peterson household is the rebellious daughter Anna, who is trying to forge her own path and get out from under her parents’ roof.

After David is invited to stay with the family for a few days while he gets his affairs in order, he begins to help them in ways their son may have if he  were still present. 

But it soon appears that David is a force to be reckoned with, and may also be dealing with inner turmoil of his own.

From here the film continues to build up tension and doesn’t stop until the credits roll. To go any further into the plot would give away too much of what makes “The Guest” so interesting and dynamic. Any clue to the influences felt or twists that occur would only ruin the experience for anyone sitting down to watch for the first time.

Although the specifics of the plot are best kept a secret to the viewer, it’s safe to say that both the writing and directing found within are very well done. Simon Barrett has continued to grow and mature in his craft as a writer over the course of making horror genre fare like “A Horrible Way to Die” and “You’re Next”. 

With “The Guest,” Barrett has moved onto something that is more commercially viable, while still maintaining all of the traits that have made his past films stand out.

The crisp dialogue allows for every word that comes out of David’s mouth to be pitch perfect, while the plotting is handled aptly and straddles several genres of 1980s film. 

What begins as a slow-burning thriller soon becomes something else entirely, incorporating everything from The Terminator to Halloween in its arsenal. Although the plot takes on a drastic change in tone partway through, any fan of ‘80s film will find it hard not to be impressed with the love and admiration shown by both the writer and director in paying homage to it.

While the initial directorial style and music may lead to comparisons of “Drive,” it makes sure to define itself as a unique film. Like his longtime collaborator Barrett, director Adam Wingard has shown a lot of growth throughout the course of his career. His most visually disciplined film to date, “The Guest” features his highest production value yet. The visual and scripted styles lend themselves perfectly to the films they parody.

Using close up shots to better portray his characters’ emotions, Wingard allows the actors’ faces to display what they may be thinking in place of redundant dialogue. Although many still shots and transitions are done simplistically, they contribute to a tone of impending dread, and sell the suspenseful thriller aspect the film’s opening half is going for. 

During the movie’s latter half, Wingard contributes more of his own personal style, further separating the two portions from one another. The film’s final act takes place in a really fun setting I won’t ruin here, but I assure is a highlight of the entire piece.

The film’s score should also be noted. The synth-pop sound track helps to establish the mood and style of the films it alludes to, all the while complimenting the story’s ebb and flow.

The film’s acting talent helps to sell the film, but no cast member does more so than Dan Stevens.

Best known for his role as a chubby aristocrat on PBS’s Downton Abby, the actor takes this opportunity to relinquish himself from any preconceived notions viewers may have of him. 

Though David could have easily been played as a one-dimensional and unlikable character, in Stevens’ hands he becomes something else entirely. In packing on muscle and producing a subtle southern accent, he has produced a character that is charm and cool personified. From the moment the character appears on screen, there is something captivating about him that keeps the viewer invested from start to finish.

The other stand-out performance comes from relative newcomer Maika Monroe who plays Anna. Throughout the course of the film Anna grows from being no more than a victim to a full-fledged ‘80s icon along the lines of Jamie Lee Curtis and Linda Hamilton. Monroe is able to aptly display the audience’s behavior and reactions during the film’s proceedings and proves to be the most real and well-rounded character in the cast. 

What winds up being the end result is a film with a lot of heart and potential that inevitably succumbs to trying to do too many things in one outing. Although the change of genres throughout its run-time can be jarring and hinder some viewers’ enjoyment, for those willing to accept its twists and appreciate what it is attempting to do, there is a lot here to like.

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