I’ll leave commentary on the overall ceremony to people more skilled at that sort of thing. Here’s a breakdown of the winners vs. my predix:
Best Visual Effects
Prediction: The Revenant
Winner: Ex Machina
A winner I love more and more the more I think about it. I thought the Academy would be wowed by the bear attack scene in The Revenant. I certainly didn’t they’d go for the least showy nominee, a film with a $15 million budget. But Ex Machina is the sort of winner I wish this category went for more: a film that used special effects beautifully, so that by the midpoint of the film I completely bought Alicia Vikander as an android. A worthy, out of left-field winner.
Best Film Editing:
Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road
Not much to say here. This usually goes to a Best Picture
winner nominee and/or the most obviously edited movie. Those two also happened to be the best edited film of the bunch. Maintaining narrative momentum with so little exposition or time to breathe as Margaret Sixel did with this film was a herculean task.
Best Costume Design:
Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road
A bit of a hopediction here: I hated the idea of Carol, my choice for the best film of 2015, going home emptyhanded. And Sandy Powell is a three-time winner who was nominated twice tonight (also for Cinderella). But Mad Max was always going to dominate the visual and technical categories and this was no exception.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling:
Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road
Prediction: The Revenant
Winner: The Revenant
Emmanuel Lubezki is now a living legend among cinematographers, and this is his third straight Oscar win. I don’t think he really deserved it for this film, which is painterly and often beautiful but lacks a signature visual epiphany like his work with Alfonso Cuaron and Terrence Malick, or even Birdman are chock full of.
Best Production Design:
Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road
Functionally, this was the place to honor the man, the myth, the legend of The Doof Warrior and his tower of speakers and flamethrowing guitars. One more time: give it up for the Doof Warrior
Best Sound Mixing:
Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road
Do you think the Oscar voters put a lot of thought into this one? Let’s be honest here. The Doof Warrior wasn’t losing any category with sound involved.
Best Sound Editing:
Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road
By my count, The Doof Warrior won three Oscars tonight. All is right with the world.
Best Original Song:
Prediction: “Til it Happens to You”, from The Hunting Ground, Lady Gaga and Diane Warren
Winner: Some mediocre song by a gentle british man
I don’t want to linger on this. The Bond tune was so forgettable. “Til it Happens to You” was a better choice and Lady Gaga’s performance was signature Oscar moment stuff. But Sam Smith seems like a sweet person and I can’t begrudge him.
Best Original Score:
Prediction: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
Winner: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
I can’t imagine the Oscars were going to let an 87 year old legend go home emptyhanded. It’s also a deserving work, and I couldn’t be happier, even though I think Carter Burwell’s simple, haunting work in Carol was the best nominee.
Best Animated Short:
Prediction: World of Tomorrow
Winner: A Bear Story
I haven’t seen the nominees and was predicting based on some reviews of World of Tomorrow by some critics I follow. A little passion can go a long way in this category and it was the best I could do other than shooting blind.
Best Live Action Short:
Prediction: Ave Maria
Shot blind. Missed.
Best Documentary Short:
Prediction: A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Winner: A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
I admit, I predict this category every year based on the title. This isn’t to be cynical or snarky, and this seems like a genuinely important work. It’s just that when making predictions, this category veers towards harrowing human interest films. Knowing nothing else about the films, I guess from the titles. It often works.
Best Documentary Feature:
It’s the only nominee I’ve seen, and I loved it. But I picked it because it’s got the biggest footprint of any of the nominees, a potent combination of critical acclaim and surprisingly good box office that often carries winners in this category.
Best Foreign Language Film:
Prediction: Son of Saul
Winner: Son of Saul
Has this category gotten too predictable? I haven’t seen any of the nominees but Son of Saul seemed like a forgone conclusion.
Best Animated Feature:
Prediction: Inside Out
Winner: Inside Out
Speaking of forgone conclusions… look. I’m not going to rag on this funny and sweet and deeply empathetic film. Inside Out is a wonderful movie. But Pixar has eight wins in this category, as many as all other studios combined. Combine Disney and Pixar into one entity (not unfair, they both belong to the Walt Disney Company) and you have 10 out of the last 13 winners. The nomination committee for this category does a fantastic job highlighting quality animation from around the world. Almost every year provides a surprise nominee, or two, or even three. But the only time the Academy at large has ever surprised us to any degree with a winner was when Spirited Away won, 14 years ago. I might write more about this later, but as much as I loved Inside Out, I don’t think this category is doing a good job of celebrating animation as the wonderful art form that it is.
Best Adapted Screenplay:
Prediction: Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, The Big Short
Winner: Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, The Big Short
Easily the worst nominee in a strong category. Yes, it’s an informative film that manages to educate us on a potentially stultifying topic, but as a story it’s uneven and doesn’t provide a single fully-formed character. Not to mention: as the Oscar clip for this category showed, it has a character named “Wife”. Seriously?? Carol, Brooklyn, Room, and The Martian all had much richer scripts. But this wasn’t hard to predict. The Big Short has got snappy dialogue and had emerged as enough of a front-runner that the Academy was going to want to reward it somewhere.
Best Original Screenplay:
Prediction: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight
Winner: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight
Well, I thought this was going to be a compensatory award for a Best Picture nominee that would otherwise have gone home empty-handed, like The Big Short. Not quite.
Best Supporting Actress:
Prediction: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Winner: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
A few months ago, the New York Times wrote a profile about Vikander having “a moment”. The Oscars love to put a wax seal on young actresses having their moments. Vikander is talented. She was also good in the underrated The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and she could easily have won this award for Ex Machina. She had a hell of a year.
Best Supporting Actor:
Prediction: Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Winner: Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Look. Mark Rylance is fantastic in Bridge of Spies. This is very much a worthy award for tremendously accomplished actor, a three-time Tony winner who acts in gentle tones and slight shifts of his eyes. Rylance does whatever the opposite of scenery chewing is and now he has an Oscar. That’s inherently cool. But man, I’d have loved it if Sly won. I thought the Academy would too. He would have deserved it just as much. But I can’t fault them for awarding Rylance.
Prediction: Brie Larson, Room
Winner: Brie Larson, Room
No surprises here. Larson is virtuosic in Room. She dominated the awards circuit this year. A completely deserving win, one that was easy to predict.
Prediction: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Winner: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
I’m not as bullish about DiCaprio’s win as I am about Larson’s, but he was just as easy to predict. And really, I can’t help but be happy for the guy, even if the cries about how overdue he was for a win seem a bit odd when he’s only 41. Still, he gets points for effort for a performance in which he gave it everything. I think Matt Damon’s performance in The Martian was better, however.
Prediction: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant
Winner: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant
Man, awards-givers love them some Iñárritu. In winning back-to-back Best Director Oscars he joins a club that previously had only featured John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz as members. Ford won his in 1940 and 1941 for The Grapes of Wrath (one of the greatest of all films) and How Green Was My Valley (a masterpiece unfairly maligned for beating another masterpiece, Citizen Kane, for Best Picture that year). Mankiewicz won his in 1949 and 1950 for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. I don’t think Birdman or The Revenant come anywhere close to those films, but then I can understand why Iñárritu’s films work for others even if they don’t for me. I find his films too emotionally distant for all their technical accomplishment, but his films are visually dazzling and do leave room for his actors to do the heavy lifting. It doesn’t do much for me, but I clearly does for a lot of others people.
Prediction: The Revenant
It feels odd that a film with a 93 Metacritic rating that won for Best Screenplay is an upset winner, but here we are. In a field of splashy, big-feeling frontrunners, Spotlight felt stripped down and lean. It didn’t have to try to feel important: it let its story play out realistically and without the sort of artificial plot escalation we’ve come to expect from films gunning for awards. It’s carried by a magnificent cast, none of whom won any awards but who would have been a shoo-in to win an ensemble award. I wish I’d seen it coming. I thought the combined love for DiCaprio and Iñárritu, coupled with the sort of box office success reminiscent of the days of populist Best Picture winners, made The Revenant an obvious choice. I was wrong: there’s something quietly unforgettable about Spotlight. It shook me when I saw it, and I have no doubt it had the same effect on Oscar voters.
Sorry for lack of posts these last few weeks, readers. I have a lot of half-finished pieces in my drafts that I haven’t quite figured out. More posts coming soon.
Before all that, I’d be remiss not to post some Oscar predictions. I couldn’t find a window today to get to that until now.
Best Picture: The Revenant
Best Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant
Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Best Actress: Brie Larson, Room
Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Best Original Screenplay: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight
Best Adapted Screenplay: Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, The Big Short
Best Animated Feature: Inside Out
Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul
Best Documentary Feature: Amy
Best Documentary Short: A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Best Live Action Short: Ave Maria
Best Animated Short: World of Tomorrow
Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
Best Original Song: “Til it Happens to You”, from The Hunting Ground, Lady Gaga and Diane Warren
Best Sound Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Sound Mixing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Cinematography: The Revenant
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Costume Design: Carol
Best Film Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Visual Effects: The Revenant
At its core, The Duke of Burgundy is about two people looking and hoping for what anyone looks for in their lover: someone with whom they can be open about their deepest vulnerabilities. Its approach is unconventional, but results are no less profound and, at times, breathtakingly beautiful.
The film, written and directed by Peter Strickland, tells the story of Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a couple living on the edge of a woodland in a French dreamscape. Cynthia teaches lepidopterology (the study of moths and butterflies) and Evelyn is a student. This isn’t quite a May-December romance; Evelyn doesn’t appear to study anything else, and although she’s clearly younger than Cynthia, she is not a starstruck co-ed. Their sex life at home consists mostly of role plays in which Cynthia plays the part of a cold, demanding mistress and Evelyn a clumsy maid.
This is an undeniably erotic film, and BDSM plays a significant part in the story (at one point in the film Cynthia grows suspicious of infidelity when she finds out Evelyn polished another woman’s boots). However, this is a film about people and feelings, not just sex. Cynthia plays the part of a dominatrix but when they let role play cease at night it’s clear the Evelyn is calling the shots in their relationship. Playing the same part day in day out to please her partner drains Cynthia emotionally. Knudsen beautifully conveys her weariness as Evelyn asks Cynthia to get into character one morning when she simply wants to tell her partner how much she loves her. A brilliant sequence showcases a day entirely from Cynthia’s point of view. She’s far more nervous about scolding, spanking, and tying up Evelyn than Evelyn is about being on the receiving end. “Was I too cold?” Cynthia says at the end of one day. “The colder the better,” Evelyn replies. Later, Cynthia reads a note with Evelyn’s requests for the next day. “Cold” it simply says, and Cynthia nearly doubles over with frustration.
For a film so deeply about feeling and sensation, Strickland appropriately approaches the film as a multi-sensory experience. The images are painterly, saturated, and often quite beautiful simply for their own sake. The sounds covey the sense of touch; the tension of a boot being zipped up, the sound of bubbles popping in a sink, and the constant flutter of butterflies’ wings.
The Duke of Burgundy is sensuous but it doesn’t fetishize the characters. The dark eroticism of the early scenes soon convey a sense of monotony as they are repeated, as and both Cynthia and Evelyn’s weariness with the repetition becomes evident. They are constantly in communication, trying to find a balance in their relationship. It might do Hollywood movies some good to see how open and communicative the characters in this film are. This film might have the look of an exploitation at first, but it soon shows itself to be a study in loneliness, and how difficult verbalizing what you want from the person you love can be.
The Duke of Burgundy is not an easy film; at times it tumbles so deeply into dreamlike states that I lost track of what was real and what wasn’t. However, it’s deeply rewarding and surprisingly beautiful. Most movie romances spend so much time setting characters up that we know nothing about their relationship after the “I Love You”. The Duke of Burgundy is about two people working their way through that initial attraction and fall into romance. The focus on BDSM is not to titillate, but to emphasize the significance of communication and compromise in a relationship, and the emotional consequences when one partner ignores or disregards the needs of another. In that regard, it is one of the most affecting and fascinating films I’ve seen this year.
Rob over at Movierob has a terrific series called Genre Grandeur, where guest bloggers are invited to write reviews of their favorite films in a particular genre. Last month’s genre, selected by Natasha of Life of This City Girl, was sci-fi. My choice was John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror classic, The Thing. You can read the rest of the Genre Grandeur reviews here.
Science fiction is so often about the future, or faraway places. If a sci-fi story raises scary questions, we can take comfort that the situations presented are too far away to really worry about. One reason John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece The Thing is so effective as a work of sci-fi and horror is it enters territory rarely approached by either genre. It makes us think of terrors long trapped right here on our humble, present-day planet, just waiting to be unleashed.
The Thing opens with a blast of sci-fi kitsch and quickly plunges headlong into unsettling mystery. The first shot is of a flying saucer crashing into earth, a shot that looks low-tech even by 1982 standards. Then come the opening titles, which appear to burn the celluloid, a bit of irony for a film so engulfed in ice and snow.
In Halloween, John Carpenter began by jolting audiences out of their seats with a disturbing first-person murder sequence unlike anything most moviegoers had seen before. With The Thing he took the opposite approach; the film opens on a dog sprinting through the snow, a helicopter in pursuit. A man inside the chopper is trying to shoot the dog with a rifle, but he’s no sniper. The dog runs into an American research camp. The chopper lands and the man with the rifle pursues, shooting blindly. One of the Americans shoots him. A loose grenade explodes, destroying the chopper and killing the pilot. The Americans are left with carnage, fire, and the dog, and a hell of a lot of questions.
The Thing doesn’t feel compelled to answer every question. Its method of describing why something is happening is to provide just enough detail to make the how that much more sinister. A when the dog starts to melt the other dogs and take on a profoundly disgusting doppelganger form, well, we don’t need to know much more than “it’s from space” and “it’s a shapeshifter” to be scared.
The result is a beautifully micro-focused entry into a genre that is usually so comparatively macro in scope. Even the film The Thing most owes a stylistic debt to- Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien– uses the vastness of space to create its sense of isolation. Alien’s working class heroes are functionally astronauts, in a society where space travel is blue-collar work. The characters in The Thing never signed up for the reaches of outer space. They are right here on Earth. The horrors unleashed upon them don’t emerge from space, but from the frozen ground.
So is The Thing really a sci-fi movie, or just a horror movie that uses science fiction as its launching pad? One of the reasons it has stood the test of time; better, I think, than Carpenter’s most famous film, Halloween; is that the two genres blend so beautifully. The Thing features quality scary moments (elevated by the spectacular practical effects work of Rob Bottin) that linger in our minds as much for the questions they raise as the grotesqueries they portray.
The film’s tension is not from the usual “is the killer around the corner” horror set pieces. It relies on two simple constants: that “the thing” could be any of the characters at any time, and that, knowing this, the characters begin to unravel. It’s my favorite sort of science fiction, hypothesizing how people might react to an out-of-this-world situation. On a grand scale, writers can speculate how civilizations might form on a newly colonized planet, or how Earth might change if we made contact with an alien civilization. But Carptenter keeps his focus tight. His monster survives and kills. The characters are trapped and have no escape. He sets things in motions and lets them play out.
The Thing is a grisly masterpiece of high tension where death lurks around literally every corner; whether it’s shapeshifting aliens, coworkers deranged from paranoia, or the bitter cold elements that ensure this concoction stays in place. It’s a crash course in genre mixing. Sci-fi is so rarely this visceral and brutal, and horror is so rarely this thoughtful and deeply paranoid.
Take your most cherished, important relationship. Draw a line from now back until the day you met. What do you see? Memories. A collection of past events that shape your relationships. The present is fleeting and the future isn’t here yet. We use the past to try to shape what comes next. What if the very beginning of your relationships were suddenly changed? Adjust the angle of any line just a bit and it no longer aligns with what it used to. By the end of the line, it’s in an unrecognizable place. 45 Years, an extraordinary film written and directed by Andrew Haigh, is about a couple whose four-and-a-half decade marriage is shaken by an adjustment to that line, a literal unearthing of a tragedy that occurred before they met.
Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) are less than a week away from their 45th wedding anniversary when he gets a letter. It’s in German, but he can make out enough of it to get the news. Fifty years ago, he went to the Alps with his girlfriend, a German woman named Katya. She fell into a crevasse and died, her body disappearing in ice and snow. He moved on, married Kate. They are now living in apparent contentment. Then comes the letter, letting Geoff know that Katya’s body has been found, preserved in the ice.
Over the next few days, Geoff and Kate attempt to reckon with this news. Geoff vacillates between going to see Katya’s body in Switzerland and not. Kate tries to live her life as if nothing has changed until she can no longer. It’s clear that Katya was one of the two most important people in all of Geoff’s life. It’s possible that she is still the most important.
What a stark, human story this is. Its premise is so specific and odd (based on a short story by David Constantine) that it could easily have run off the rails into melodrama. But Courtenay and Rampling deliver such measured, vibrant performances that the film feels like it’s happening in the present moment. Their marriage isn’t suddenly upended by this discovery. The ramifications develop more slowly. Geoff needs time to discover just how much his grief over Katya’s death still affects him. Kate needs time to figure out how much she needs to reevaluate her position in Geoff’s life, and how much what he never told her about Katya matters to her.
Their conversations about the topic are realistic. They feel rooted in the decades of their relationship. Not one word sounds like a writer trying to manufacture drama. Kate tries to be pragmatic at first. Geoff tries to act like the news is only a fleeting worry. Their nightly conversations in bed reveal truths neither wants to acknowledge. Their attic becomes a sanctuary of secrets for them both. Kate realizes that Geoff is looking at old pictures of Katya in the attic while she sleeps, and demands to see them. She looks at a photo, puts it down, and goes back to bed. For a moment, both of them betrayed their true feelings more than they intended, and she seems frightened by that.
45 Years leans heavily on Courtenay and Rampling to carry it, to give us an understanding of their marriage in only a few scenes, and to invest us in it. They deliver. Consider a scene where Geoff wonders aloud if the library has books about climate change. In the next scene, Geoff and Kate are in a cafe, with Geoff reading a large book on the subject, talking about an impending glacial tsunami. You could argue that the dialogue is symbolic about Katya, whose body was found in a glacier. However, my biggest takeaway was how absolutely convincing, even charming these two were as a couple, and how realistic this scene was. Characters are so rarely allowed to talk to one another about the silly little things real people talk about. Their gestures and mannerisms carry decades of understanding, love, and frustration.
Later, there is a stunning sequence when Kate finds old slides with pictures of Katya. She looks at them through a projector while Geoff is out of the house. Rampling’s reactions to the images feature some of the best acting you’ll see in a film this year. Her heart seems to break three ways, betrayed only in slight shifts in her eyes.
The ambiguity of the ending of 45 Years might frustrate some. I thought it worked. The final shot is a stunner, a gorgeous, dialogue-free unbroken take that aims for poetry over definitive conclusions. 45 Years does not attempt to answer if Geoff and Kate’s marriage is forever altered, or even destroyed, by the re-introduction of Katya into their narrative. The story takes place entirely in the days leading up to and during their anniversary party. The full effect of Katya cannot realistically play out in that time. This isn’t a story about the aftermath of a tsunami; it’s about how the ripples of the beginning of the story become the visible crest of a wave at the end.
I figure I’ll give myself until the end of February (the end of the new release graveyard, basically) to keep posting reviews of last year’s films. Until then, there are still some terrific movies that need seeing. Amy is one of them.
Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy opens with home video footage of a 14-year-old Amy Winehouse singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend. Her voice is startling: rich, beautiful, and robust. I imagine any music producer hearing this snippet would clamor to find out more about this girl. Then something far more grim struck me: at 14, Amy Winehouse was more than halfway to her death. Never deviating from footage (much of it home video shot by Winehouse and her friends) Kapadia builds a narrative from this moment, when Winehouse was so full of promise, to the realization of that promise as she catapulted to superstardom, and finally her self-destruction and death at age 27 from alcohol poisoning.
I remember well when Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” was all the rage. I was a sophomore in college, immersing myself in music for the first time as I took jazz vocal lessons and sang with musical ensembles. Her ascent coincided with my first deep appreciation of music. “Rehab” was my favorite song for some time. I wasn’t alone. It was so catchy and energetic that it overtook any room in which it was played. Everyone in the room had no choice but to stop and listen. My younger sister, however, couldn’t listen to the song. It was too bleak for her. She saw through the veneer of defiant buoyancy and saw underneath a song about self-aware self-destruction laid bare for the world to see. In hindsight, I think she was right. Today it’s hard not to see “Rehab” as a confession from someone who was not long for the world.
Celebrity documentaries are a tricky business. It’s easy to fall into the trap of hagiography, spouting platitudes and downplaying the subject’s life off the stage. Go too far the other way, and you run the risk of seeming disingenuous: stardom and the price of fame is an inescapable aspect of any superstar’s life story. Kapadia’s great achievement with Amy is finding balance. Every frame of the movie is about Amy Winehouse. Voiceovers are kept to the soundtrack; there are no cuts to talking heads. We get the sense of the flow of a lifetime. It’s devastating that that lifetime can be covered in only 2 hours.
There are always limits to how thoroughly a documentary can examine its subject. If you simply recite a glut of facts, you don’t end up with a watchable movie, and you don’t do the story justice. Amy makes no attempt to be a “tell all”. Its aims are clear. Odds are, you know Amy Winehouse as a musician who skyrocketed to fame, became tabloid fodder, and died young. In interviewing her friends, family, and closest colleagues, Kapadia aims to have us empathize with someone we likely hadn’t before. There are no justifications of Amy Winehouse’s self-destructive behavior. But it’s one part of a person. Winehouse’s surge to fame feels like a suffocating blanket. She seems woefully unprepared to handle the burden of it. Shots of paparazzi swarming her with flashbulbs feel like a horror film. Her collapse into bulimia, drug addiction, and alcoholism was covered with intense glee by the entertainment press. I felt stings of guilt as footage that I no doubt once gawked at and forgot now seemed like a harbinger. When a standup comedian mocks Winehouse’s haggard appearance near the end of her life, it’s crushing, not just for the callousness of the words, but because odds are we probably found it funny at the time.
As I wrote before Amy is not a hagiography. It is a reminder of how easily we dehumanize other people, even as we admire their talent. When Winehouse died, that too was what we paid lip service to. “Such talent, wasted,” is the go-to sentiment when an artist dies too soon. And then we move on. We reserve our deep sympathies. We compartmentalize. It’s easy to forget that everyone has a story worth telling, worth knowing. Even if you know nothing of Amy Winehouse, I imagine you would still find Amy to be compelling and terribly sad. It’s all too human a story. Some people are blessed with extraordinary artistic abilities. Some people die young, under tragic circumstances. Too often, they are the same person.
THAT’S RIGHT, MY FAVORITE LITTLE-SEEN MONDAY MOVIES ARE BACK. It’s been too long.
On the wings of watching some very bleak films recently (Sicario, The Gift, and Amy are not a trio you want to watch back-to-back-to-back if you want laughs), I wanted to highlight a filmmaker whose greatest skill is keeping his sense of humor no matter how dour the material is on its surface. I’ve seen two films by Adam Wingard. His 2011 film You’re Next is my favorite horror film of this decade thus far. It manages what so few in the genre have: it’s equally funny and intense without ever winking at the camera or otherwise openly going for laughs. It’s aware enough that the horror genre often rests on the precipice of comedy. Horror stories are often absurd, and almost anything that’s absurd can be funny, depending on the presentation. Wingard is terrific at finding that balance between the two, and edging one way or the other without going too far.
In many ways, his 2014 film The Guest is even more ambitious. It doesn’t wear its genre as plainly on its sleeve. Its plot could easily have been played as a straightforward thriller. But Wingard can’t help but inject a healthy dose of black comedy. When the film is at its darkest, it’s also often at its funniest. In a time when so many films are exercises in enduring misery, The Guest is a welcome reminder that humor and horror are often meant for one another.
The Guest doesn’t telegraph its intentions at first. Like You’re Next it centers around a family. The Petersons are a family of five in New Mexico. Recent tragic events have reduced them to four. The eldest son, Caleb, was a soldier, killed in Afghanistan. The parents, Spencer and Laura (Leland Orser and Sheila Kelley) are in the last, longest stages of grief. Their 20-year-old daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) keep to herself and out of the house. The younger son Luke (Brendan Meyer) is in high school, where he is regularly and mercilessly bullied.
Like You’re Next, Wingard spends some time letting us get to know the family before blood begins to flow. They are recognizably dysfunctional. In You’re Next, that dysfunction is disrupted by a crossbow bolt through the window at dinner, The Guest takes its time. The disruption takes the form of David, a handsome young drifter played by Dan Stevens. David says he was a soldier in Caleb’s unit. He said he promised Caleb that if necessary, he’d check on his family, help them out if needed. The parents are drawn in by David’s impeccable politeness and kindness. They let him stay indefinitely.
David’s behavior is an odd mix of calm sincerity and intense, forceful action. Anna takes him to a party, where her friend Kristen is threatened by an ex-boyfriend. David brutally beats the ex, learns where he can easily buy guns, and quietly leaves with Anna, who is more than impressed. Upon finding out that Luke is being bullied, David takes Luke to the bar that his bullies frequent. He goads the bullies by buying their girlfriends drinks and then fights them all at once, leaving them broken and writhing. If David were simply impossible to beat in a fight, that would be a hoary cliche. It’s his behavior before and after the fight that’s interesting. Consider how impeccably he plans out the entire maneuver, from his choice of drinks to how he talks the bartender out of calling the police. David is machinelike, not simply in his invincibility, but in his efficiency.
Penchant for violence aside, David might appear to be a welcome entry into the Petersons’ lives. Anna and Luke both take a deep liking to him, and the feelings appear to be mutual. It’s when bodies start to turn up that Anna starts to get suspicious. David is clearly responsible. That David is “not everything he seems” goes without saying. It’s in the things he actually is that The Guest is so surprising and clever. I won’t spoil it here, but The Guest doesn’t just justify the hilariously over-the-top bloodbath that is its ending; the explanations are so outrageous that the entire last act feels like a 4 AM brain storm. In this case, that is a compliment. Some terrible things happen to these characters as David realizes that Anna is closing in on his identity. This could easily be a dire, charmless experience. But Wingard seems plenty aware that this material shouldn’t be presented with a stone face. Many scenes are deliberately silly, always with style. Dan Stevens’s performance is key. He sends up the cliche of the charming, smiling psychopath by underplaying it. He’s less a charismatic killer than a guy who seems to want to be nice but who can’t seem to help leaving bodies in his wake.
The Guest is entertaining in many more ways than a description of its plot would convey. Yes, it ends with a storm of violence, but Wingard knows that that alone is not inherently entertaining. Maika Monroe is a very likable lead as Anna, a profoundly average 20-year-old thrust into a ridiculous situation to which she responds with surprising aptitude for survival. And Dan Stevens is good in ways that you might not appreciate at first. It’s a performance of seemingly few notes, but he is clearly playing them all in delight.