Filmmaker Adam Wingard began his career making so-called “mumblegore” films in the low-budget, naturalistic vein as his frequent collaborator Joe Swanberg, but 2011’s You’re Next saw him adapt a unabashedly “retro” and less lo-fi style similar to that of colleague Ti West. Wingard’s latest effort, The Guest, continues in the same direction.
The Peterson family are struggling with the recent death of their son Caleb, a soldier killed in action in Afghanistan, when a young man appears on their doorstep. He gives his name as David Collins and claims to have been a good friend and fellow soldier of Caleb’s, and was with him when he died. Caleb’s dying wish was for David to visit his family after his discharge, to look after them and tell them how much their son loved them. With nowhere else to go and no real plan for the future, the Peterson parents insist David stay with them for a few days, an offer he reluctantly takes them up on.
As David integrates himself into the family unit, befriending daughter Anna’s peer group and helping son Luke cope with bullies, it soon becomes clear that David is not what–or who–he seems. The Guest gradually escalates from family drama to suspense thriller to full-blown action movie, complete with explosions and fully automatic gunfire. But Wingard and longtime screenwriting partner Simon Barrett keep the scale low and the story grounded. Instead of delivering an over-the-top extravaganza, Wingard maintains a tight focus on the dynamic between David and the Petersons. This is a story not about the awesomeness of violence but its corrupting and poisoning effect.
The effect is similar to John Carpenter’s low-scale action films such as Assault on Precinct 13, a parallel reinforced by Steve Moore’s arpeggiated-synth score and a soundtrack featuring Goth acts such as Love and Rockets, Clan of Xymox, and the Sisters of Mercy. (Even the titles join the fun, being printed in Albertus, Carpenter’s signature font.)
Apart from Wingard’s direction, The Guest also serves as a showcase for its lead actor, Dan Stevens (late of Downton Abbey). In playing David, he keeps a tight rein on the titular Guest’s emotions, always kind and smiling but occasionally showing glimpses of the violence roiling beneath the surface. This is best displayed in a chilling scene where David starts out telling Luke not to let bullies pick on him and ending with him advising his charge to burn his enemies’ houses down if defending himself doesn’t get them off his case.
Stevens provides the film’s center and anchor but all of the performances that orbit his are strong, especially Maika Moore and Brendan Meyer, respectively, as Anna and Luke. Also watch out for the great Lance Reddick (of Oz and Fringe) as a determined military officer and a brief appearance from AJ Bowen, the fourth member of the Wingard/West/Swanberg alliance.
The Guest is another excellent entry in Wingard’s increasingly impressive oevure, and it has much to offer fans of horror, thrillers, and action films. Indeed, I’d name it one of the best genre films of 2014. Look it up.