Sundance 2014 Review: The Guest

Filmmaking duo Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have been teetering on the edge of genuine greatness for a while now. Last year’s You’re Next, finally released after years of exuberant festival buzz, wasn’t quite the film to cross that threshold, operating better in the end as a character-driven genre exercise than a meaningful artistic expression. But it had promise, so much promise. Luckily for us we didn’t have to wait much longer for Wingard and Barrett to follow through: The Guest is genuinely great filmmaking.

The Guest hybridizes unexpected genres together but has an impressively singular purpose. The story of David, a soldier (“Downtown Abbey’s” Dan Stevens) who visits the home of his fallen comrade’s family, who welcome him with open arms, goes chillingly wrong for everybody. David promised to take care of that family, but an initially innocent attempt to send a message of love and be on his way gets derailed when the grieving matriarch (Sheila Kelly) invites him to stay for a few days, even though they know absolutely nothing about him.

The audience – cued by Stevens’ eerie robotic mannerisms and director Wingard’s wry red flags – knows immediately that this would be a huge mistake. And sure enough, David’s vow to take care of the family, also comprised of an alcoholic underachieving father (Leland Orser), a bullied teenager (Brendan Meyer), and 20-year-old hot daughter (Maika Monroe), goes very, very wrong. All David knows is his military programming, so banal local aggressors on all sides are dispatched with ruthless efficiency: either through intimidation, battery, or pre-emptive, maybe even homicidal strikes. 

That set-up is pure Hitchcock: a smart takedown of iffy but commonly held values that forces a civilian family to confront the ethically complicated, though undeniably pragmatic first strike philosophy of the modern military, through the eyes of a relatable, endearing cast of characters who are blinded by their own personal problems. They should react to David’s horrifying actions with shock, scorn and terror, but perhaps they’re too busy enjoying the selfish byproduct benefits to ask too many questions or, worse, even care about the answers. Only the daughter suspects that something is awry. Call it Shadow Recruit of a Doubt​.

That would be enough to make The Guest a worthy thriller. Wingard directs the film with a confident directness that gives The Guest a smaller, independent aesthetic until everything subverts itself and the action explodes. The hand of the storyteller is ever present but never gets in the way, used mostly to remind us that The Guest is a witty entertainment that happens to also be scary. The cast is uniformly believable, likable and sympathetic, including – impressively enough – Dan Stevens, whose mannered portrayal of David could have played as high camp, but instead feels cleverly calculated. Stevens is pervasively sinister but his smugness and genuine concern for the welfare of his charges elevates David until he comes across like a damn near iconic supervillain.

Yes, that “would” be enough, but Wingard and Barrett are rarely satisfied with one great idea when it’s so much fun to shove in three or four. Fortunately, in The Guest at least, these genre mash-ups begin late enough that the film is thoroughly grounded in reality before their dorky send-ups begin. The Guest evolves, not quite naturally but in a way that’s certainly welcome, into an outlandish fusion of action, conspiracy, slasher, domestic thriller and maybe (maybe) even a little sci-fi (maybe). The plot and style careens from one unexpectedly related genre trope to another, all in service of a smart story and characters whose issues could have been neatly allegorized by any one of the cinematic genera that Wingard and Barrett have decided to play with. That they picked all of them, and made each one work as well as the others, is a real treat.

And most importantly, this is all so much fun. The Guest gets away with every objectively silly development because the overarching point is clear and the cast is so damned good, freeing Wingard and Barrett’s film to be a subtle thriller, an over the top thriller, a hilarious satire, a genuine expression, an exciting action movie and a creepy horror film simultaneously, or at least at just the right turns. It’s a crafty crowdpleaser that’s still intelligent enough to warrant real consideration about what it’s saying about the contemporary culture that gave birth to it, through both style and substance.

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.