Slick psychological thriller The Guest defies expectation but delivers on its promise to entertain. Simon Evans & Luke Ostler sing the praises of his 2014 genre gem…
If there’s anything to be learnt from watching The Guest, it’s never to trust a trailer. Because of that short and sharp piece of promo material, we were expecting a tedious and entirely predictable B-movie featuring unrefined actors, a boring and brainless rock soundtrack and a script you’ve sat through many times before. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
The premise hardly seems revolutionary: recently discharged soldier David (Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame in the kind of role he’s clearly been itching to play) appears at the doorstep of the Peterson family to pass on the last words of their deceased son Caleb. The new arrival accepts the family’s hospitality and earns his keep by using his impressive skillset to fix their various problems, but of course all may not be as it seems with everyone’s new best friend.
Instantly, and strikingly, the film defies expectations with a series of sharply cut together shots, opening with a rear view of the titular character jogging along a dirt path before abruptly cutting to a black title screen with a font that’s reminiscent of the text used on the classic poster for The Exorcist. The soundtrack bursts into life before the shot cuts sharply to a close-up of the Petersons’ Halloween jack o’ lantern. This jarring, exciting opening salvo of shots hints at the rollercoaster ride that’s to follow.
Immediately following this opening assault on the senses, the film throws us again with a spectacular change of tone. David arrives at the house and meets the Peterson Mother (Sheila Kelley). Neither the audience nor Kelley are allowed to sample a true taste of this mysterious figure, but the instant David is left alone he settles into a cold, unfeeling catatonia, while the soundtrack makes it perfectly clear that the man in the frame is not our hero. In fact, when in solitude he seems to be the reincarnation of Jack Nicholson’s classic character in The Shining. Throughout the first act, sporadic reminders pop up, just in case anyone had forgotten, to assure us that this young man who charms all he meets is actually bad to the bone.
With these predictable but enjoyable pieces fitting together pleasingly and the visuals and soundtrack proving easy on the senses, the film sees fit to remind us that it isn’t taking itself too seriously. When the family’s father returns from work to find that not only has a younger man been invited into his home, but that he’s staying for a while, he reacts with hostility (although it’s hard to work out whether this is due to the possibility of David having post-traumatic stress disorder or simply from realising that his wife makes all the decisions around the place), but just a few brief scenes later they’re quaffing beer together like old pals. The actions of the mother are even less sensible in a later scene that Sam Peckinpah would have approved of, this otherwise level-headed woman deciding to escape a volley of bullets by running into the very building that’s in the process of being razed to the ground. It’s no sticking point, though; this and other sequences are reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, with abrasive close-ups followed by quick-draw gunfights. The shoot-out scenes are clinical, brutal, and convincing even if the sound of wounds being inflicted sometimes veers into cartoonish territory.
A clear indicator of the fun you’ll be having watching this film is the way in which the subjection of central characters to violent and sadistic events provokes no feelings of sympathy. David’s reaction of comically casual disappointment to his failure to dispatch a victim with a head-on car crash, instead only maiming the target, is (perhaps worryingly) infectious. That’s right – we’re back in the realm of pure exploitation, where pain and death are unabashedly gleeful experiences. Rarely since the 80s has such a perversely exploitative picture hit our screens; if we were being metaphysical, David might even represent the sadistic extremes of human nature. Good thing we’re not, then!
Another telling indicator of how this picture taps into the human instinct for brutality is a superb sequence where David violently subdues the ex-boyfriend of a girl he has just met and promptly beds his conquest. It doesn’t get much more primal than that. In a later scene he organises a meeting with a pair of firearm sellers before calmly informing the vendors that he won’t be paying, preferring instead to take the goods then and kill them. And this is two characters who had been portrayed sympathetically for the course of the film; there’s absolutely no reason to wish them dead, and yet you’ll delight in their icy demise.
So far, so all about the titular guest, but as things progress a co-star rises to prominence and equal billing; relative newcomer Maika Monro, playing the family’s daughter and our heroine Anna Peterson. It’s an understated performance that succeeds in creating a well-rounded, believable character you can root for. Although Stevens gets the glory by playing the suave, clinical killer, it’s Monroe who becomes pivotal in driving forward the narrative as someone we can relate to without feeling guilty 20 minutes after leaving the cinema. It helps matters that, in an outrageous move for a Hollywood film, she plays someone her actual age of 20. We must admit that the provocative outfits Monro wears throughout the film verge on the ridiculous, especially considering the portrayal of her father as a stuffy conservative who won’t let her see her boyfriend. Yet despite all this, the deliciously exploitative 80s feel of the film makes it somehow seem entirely appropriate. It all makes for attractive viewing; the cinematographer clearly adores the two leads, who frequently fill the screen in glorious close-up.
The film builds to a fantastic finale, with the remaining characters caught in a deadly game as the Halloween theme returns with a vengeance. The thumping electro soundtrack is ratcheted up to full-bore and the visuals form an intense kaleidoscope, the combination of which will have you riveted to your seat. The Guest is a revelatory delight and a visceral joy to experience.