Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Guest Review - He's the Guestiest

The Guest is not a complicated movie, but this is not a problem. In fact, it's a fine throwback to simpler times. Do you remember House of the Devil? Yeah, the same way that HotD felt like a thrilling and moderately-successful supernatural 80's horror film, so too does The Guest feel like a thriller/slasher from 30 years ago.

David is a guy who we first see run down a road with a pack on his back. By the time he meets the Petersons - the family at the heart of this story - everything is made clear, either overtly or indirectly: the mother and father are sleepwalking in the wake of their oldest son's death in military service. Their two surviving children are obsessed with their own teenage problems, while the parents just blankly, mutely coast through the wake of the tragedy. In pops David (Dan Stevens), who was part of their son's squad - David says he's fresh out of hospital, and is following through on a promise to check in with, comfort, and look after his pal's family before he moves on.

The problem is that no one is ready to move on at all. Mom (Sheila Kelley) is a distracted mess of a person who just keeps things moving without actually fixing or even addressing much of anything. Dad (Leland Orser, brilliantly-disguised by a pornstache) is too busy worrying about his insecurities - especially ones related to his wife's happiness - to do much of anything, either.

But David is pleasant company - mom has a connection to her dead boy, and dad has an adult male to talk to, so both parents keep inviting David to stick around. Meanwhile, their daughter is dating a local drug dealer/musician, and their youngest son is getting his ass kicked by bullies every day. As the parents push David into their children's lives, their guest learns a lot of secrets about each kid. This newest addition seems like he might help heal the Petersons' wounds, but the atmosphere of the film makes one thing clear: there's a chill of doom every time David gets more involved with his hosts.

I wanted to see this movie the second I learned it was the sophomore effort of Adam Wingard (director/editor) and Simon Barrett (writer), the guys who made You're Next. I have to know what these guys get up to, just like the sheer quality of the writing and execution in The Babadook ensures that I'll catch Jennifer Kent's next feature. Although I don't regret missing tG when it came out in September (I was very, very busy), I'm quite happy I went out of my way to watch it as part of my big 2014 review-athon.

"Retro" is really the word at play here. Although the roles aren't exactly rich or deep, The Guest does a good job of taking its time, establishing the characters and the film's tone. It's not in a rush to get to violence and terror. And man, what a tone - what starts off as a creepy and unsettling vibe gradually builds to outright dread. It's in some overt aspects of the movie - there's a synth-type sound cue that I could swear is from John Carpenter's Halloween, and the film takes place on Halloween, so carved pumpkins are everywhere - as well as in more subtle elements, like the slight blankness on David's face when he's alone, or the fact that the Peterson family's doorbell is off-key.

I was quite pleased by the tension that runs under so many of the scenes, tension which rises and falls as the story keeps unspooling. The creators also know how to properly use eroticism to affect the mood - from the mother's bust filling in the foreground in an early moment to an unexpected sex scene - providing a little extra juice for both male and female audience members. Better yet, there's a big payoff coming for viewers - not only does David seldom do what you expect, but the action is so well-executed that you feel a true sense of exhilaration once things start getting intense.

And, for me, that's sort of the biggest surprise here. SWF and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and The Stepfather (and hell, The Crush), were stories about interesting strangers who prove, despite outward friendliness, to be dangerous and unhinged nutjobs. But only The Guest transforms itself into a full-on action film - and pulls it off well.

Because David is both highly-skilled and charming, you don't so much root for him as you are impressed by what he does. You don't have to like what somebody does for it to make your jaw drop. It also helps that the violence - while harsh - doesn't tend to be sadistic or overly-graphic (unlike You're Next). It certainly isn't cartoonish and looks like live-action stuntwork, which engages the audience more, and the ugly business never rises to the point of brutality, which makes it more palatable as well.

So what are the problems here? Well... when I said the roles weren't exactly deep, I might've been underselling it. David is a fine character (and Dan Stevens performs like a champ here), but the mystery surrounding our retired soldier is one of the picture's strengths. The two Peterson kids really get the deepest stuff, here. The pretty young daughter not only displays the cliche teen stuff (rebelliousness, attitude, snark), but she shows proactive intelligence, intuition, and real resilience. The picked-on son shows a deep longing for friendship, but also a lot of self-control and a level of moral ambiguity that's actually interesting.

But the mom and the dad? They're not badly-acted, just written very sketchily. The dad has one note, pretty much, and that's insecurity combined with a need for male-male bonding. The mother is much worse, however: she's an absolute milquetoast.

That clip is for the ladies (and, to be fair, some men)

It's not just that she does moronic things like order her 20 year-old girl to invite a 25 y/o stud to a party (for f--k's sake, really?), it's that those are literally the only things Momma Peterson does. If her house were filled with a blazing fire, Mom would run back in for photo albums even though every person was safe. I wouldn't be so bothered by it, but the mother in You're Next had the exact same quality - the only times she takes an action, it's to advance the plot, and often that action is so completely f--king pointless that you wonder if the writer has a poor opinion of moms or something.

But these complaints are relatively (I'm using that word carefully, here) minor, as we don't generally expect the roles in this type of thriller to be deep. In fact, I'm pretty sure that many reviewers were bothered by the teasing little reveals about David's past, and I actually liked that a lot - both because it was well-executed and because it leads to some nice possibilities regarding our title character.

I would say that the far bigger problem comes at the very end of the film. All I'll say is that the choice of the creators here actually makes the movie kind of incomplete - and that I've seen other movies that made a similar decision and managed to not feel incomplete... In the end, what does it matter if I was impressed and entertained?

The flaws in The Guest don't make me dislike the picture - any more than I have to dislike a person who has flaws, even flaws that I find a little offensive or annoying. But it does mean that if anyone wants to criticize the movie a bit, I can't argue against them. The only cards I'll be able to play are (a) wasn't it still better than you expected and (b) didn't you still have a good time? And I'm willing to bet that anyone reading this

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