The doorbell rings, startling Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley) out of a silent grievous moment. She rises and opens the door to find a handsome young man (Dan Stevens) waiting for her on the front porch. He has striking blue eyes; piercing crystal spheres that soften with kindness upon taking in her form. He says his name is David. He says that he knew her son and served with him in the war. He says that he was with him when he died. He says that he promised to ‘check on’ her family, and that pledge is what led him to this encounter. Laura asks David if he’d like to come inside and opens the door a little wider, letting him know that he is welcome in her home.
Thus begins The Guest, the latest from Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, the writing/directing team behind You’re Next and A Horrible Way to Die. Outside of being a sparse set up for the mess of mayhem which follows, this opening scene acts as a kind of manifesto for the rest of the movie. This time out, Wingard and Barrett are playing with the unassuming; subverting the trust we put in those who have earned it. What results from the basic conceit is an evolutionary leap forward in craft for both the writer and director, as they combine the sure-handed simplicity of early Cameron with the meticulous, widescreen framing of Carpenter. Not only the best film both artists have put their name on, The Guest is easily one of the most economically entertaining action films since the original Terminator.
The Peterson family is one that is in desperate need of help. Spencer (Leland Orser), the overworked and underpaid patriarch, senses that Laura is losing respect for him on account of his inability to control his drinking and land a better paying position. Anna (Maika Monroe), the diner-slaving daughter, has fallen in with a questionable crowd of drug-dealing “bad boys” who view her as nothing more than a sex receptacle. Luke (Brendan Meyer), finds himself to be the target of high school bullies, all of whom take pleasure in slamming the boy’s face against lockers and calling him a “faggot”. But David is going to change all of this, as he is the guardian angel the Petersons have been praying for. And if it takes a little bit of murder, blackmail or bone-crunching bar violence in order for him to help the Petersons get ahead in life, that’s the way its going to be. Because David swore an oath, and a soldier never goes back on his word.
To say Dan Stevens gives an absolute rock star performance seems unfair to rock stars. He’s just that magnetic and captivating. There’s a calculated control to every single line delivery and rigid body movement. When he wants to be the object of every woman’s affections, all he does is flash his shark-like smile and you can feel knees going weak in the theater. If he needs to strike down a school principal threatening to expel Luke after an altercation, he simply leans back in his chair and delivers an ultimatum with the casual cool of a mafia Don. And once David’s true, lethal nature is revealed in the film’s back half, his face becomes a brick wall of rigid intensity. Squeezing off rounds and stabbing women and children in the stomach comes as easily to him as the chilling bond he develops with Luke, and Stevens sells every moment effortlessly. This is the stuff movie stars are made of.
Beyond featuring an acting turn that literally lifts the film up into greatness all by its lonesome, The Guest is a marvel of moviemaking design. Gone is the rough, handheld camerawork of Wingard’s previous features, replaced with a locked in, widescreen steadicam that gives every frame a sense of exactitude. Wingard is wearing his influences on his sleeve, but is also smart enough to know that simple homage is boring by itself (unless you’re referencing Season of the Witch, which is fine in any movie). There’s an attention to craft that is positively hypnotic as the young director adds visual flourishes and lights each scene with an eye for neon potency. A climactic chase through a high school Halloween funhouse is kinematically genius on a very basic level, as it adds fluidity to an already beguiling cinematic vision. The Guest becomes thrilling not only in a pure, visceral sens, but also via an artistic assertion of self. To wit, this is Wingard proclaiming to be much more than a “mumblegore” master, but a genuine student of the form and its most commanding purveyors.
Aiding in no small part to the visual lushness is Wingard’s handpicked soundtrack; a mix of arpeggiated insanity that somehow still seems organic within the movie’s narrative (Anna makes David a mix that features both Sisters of Mercy AND Gatekeeper). This attention to sonic design stretches beyond the score (which is fleshed out by composer Steve Moore). Stevens’ voice feels cranked up in the mix at certain points, elevating his already dominant presence. Every caliber of gun that’s fired has a unique blast, bringing to mind the many firearm battles in Michael Mann’s best movies. Again, it’s an attention to even the smallest details that helps The Guest congeal into a thoroughly realized vision, complete with action sequences that are as deafening as they are exhilarating.
When it’s all said and done, Barrett and Wingard have yet again combined for an incredible exercise in genre playfulness. Though I haven’t exactly hit on specifics, I feel like I’ve already given too much away by even alluding to a Terminator comparison. This is, like the rest of the very best movies at Fantastic Fest this year, a work that should be experienced as cold as humanly possible (bit of advice: do not watch the full-length trailer, as it gives away entirely too many of the film’s surprises). But beyond seeing it for the cinematic dexterity on display, The Guest is a work that announces a star who should be blowing minds (and stealing hearts) for years to come. Though he’s ultimately a cold-blooded killer, Stevens turns his mechanical maniac into a matinee idol. So do yourself a favor and let him into your home, as you’ll be happy to let him murder your whole family.