Jason recommends: “The Guest”

The GuestJust a quick note to tell you about a good little movie you should check out: 2014’s The Guest, directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett.

The setup of The Guest is pretty simple. We meet the Peterson family, whose grief over the loss of their soldier son Caleb in Afghanistan is grinding them all down in different ways. Then one day a stranger with piercing blue eyes appears at their front door. His name is David, he explains, and he served with Caleb overseas. He was there when Caleb died, in fact, and promised his dying buddy that he would let his family know that his last thoughts on this earth were of them. Now he’s out of the Army, and he’s come to fulfill that promise.

The Petersons welcome him with open arms, and offer to let him stay with them for a few days while he looks for a job and gets on his feet. And David quickly proves to be an ideal guest; respectful, courteous and modest, he cheerfully helps out around the house, and even starts teaching Caleb’s bully-plagued younger brother Luke how to stand up for himself.

While he’s doing all that, though, we (along with the Petersons’ daughter, Anna) start to notice some weird things about David — things that indicate that maybe he’s not exactly the person he says he is. But if he’s not Caleb’s army buddy, who is he? And, maybe more troublingly, if he’s not there to keep a promise to a dying friend, what actually brought him to the Petersons’ front door? What does he want?

The Guest, in other words, is a mysterious-stranger suspense thriller, which led me to it with low expectations since movies with that premise tend to be low-budget schlock. While The Guest is not exactly big-budget, however, it is definitely not schlock; it’s elevated past its pedestrian premise by smart writing and strong performances into a fun, compelling thriller.

The performances are particularly worthy of note. The titular guest is played by Dan Stevens, who is probably familiar to most of you from his role as weedy aristocrat Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey. Here, however, he is something else entirely; his body chiseled and cut, his eyes flashing like lasers, he manages to both be completely plausible as someone a family of strangers would take in without a second thought and as someone who practically vibrates with barely restrained menace. The facility with which he passes between these two modes of performance is startling. It makes the movie.

Another very good performance is turned in by Stevens’ co-star, Maika Monroe, who plays skeptical daughter Anna. Her character is in an awkward place in her life — 20 years old but still living at home, waitressing while trying to save up enough money to escape to college, secretly dating a local pot dealer but, we sense, less out of passion than out of a desire to defy her parents, who hate him. And Monroe takes exactly the right approach to this character, making her grounded and realistic in a way that provides a fascinating contrast to Stevens’ larger-than-life David. She’s a romantic, but not so much of one that she refuses to see what’s right in front of her; and that quality is what leads her to suspect David when all the other members of her family are busy being thrilled at how well he fulfills their individual needs. This is the first performance of Monroe’s that I’ve seen, but based on it I’m looking forward to seeing more.

And a special word must be said about the third act of this film, which is absolutely fantastic. The standard problem with mysterious-stranger plots is that, once the identity of the stranger is revealed, the movie has nowhere else to go. The Guest isn’t immune to that problem, but you get the feeling that the filmmakers recognized that and decided to address it in the only way they could imagine: by throwing all restraint to the wind and turning it into a completely different kind of movie. So, while most of The Guest is taut and suspenseful, the last thirty minutes or so are like someone strapped rocket engines to it and launched it towards the moon. It is so gleefully over-the-top that you can’t help but be swept along, giggling all the way. Every end-of-the-horror-movie trope is hauled out, dumped onto the stage, and then wired together to form a lurching, steam-belching monstrosity so ugly you can’t help but love it. It is glorious.

So yeah, The Guest is not Shakespeare. But it’s a lot of fun, even if you’re not usually a fan of these types of films. It’s free to stream on Netflix at the moment, available for rental from most other streaming services, and out on DVD and Blu-Ray as well. You should check it out.