Monday’s Movie You Might Have Missed: The Guest (2014)
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.