Friday, February 20, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: The Guest

 Just the other day, I heard someone refer to Adam Wingard's You're Next as "overrated"; it's a sentiment I disagree with, but over the years I have learned that opinions are very hard to change when it comes to movies. Your reaction to a film doesn't exist in a vacuum, no matter how hard you try to "go in blind." There are at least two more movies that will come later in this "Best Of" portion of the recap where I've read reviews that took a film to task for its reputation, rather than the film itself*. It happens, and I'm no different. The Cap'n took a long time to be able to watch Scott Pilgrim vs. the World divorced from fawning internet praise and see on its own merits. I still don't necessarily agree with the notion it's a better movie than Edgar Wright's next film, The World's End, but that's another discussion for another day. I wanted to bring the issue of expectations - justified or not - up because, like You're Next, Wingard's latest film, The Guest, is going to hinge on what you've heard going in.

 In many ways, The Guest is a stylistic successor to You're Next, both in execution but also in Wingard's willingness to play with genre expectations. I would venture that it's an improvement on You're Next in that the first act isn't as wobbly, but how he subverts expectations might be a sticking point for you. Personally, I loved it. Every moment of The Guest made me chuckle, or smile, because Wingard is clearly having fun with the story structure. It's a genre that horror / thriller fans know very well: the "stranger arrives who seems nice but is actually very dangerous" is so prevalent that you can spot it right away in a trailer. So it's a pleasant surprise that The Guest is both exactly what you'd expect, but also not quite the movie you think you'll get.

 The titular stranger in this instance is David (Dan Stevens), a combat veteran who served in a Special Unit. He arrives at the home of the Peterson family, and informs Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley) that he served with her son. It was his dying with that David go to their home and inform them that he loved them all. Laura is still pretty broken up, and when she realizes that David doesn't have anywhere to go, she invites him to stay with them. From the first moment we see Stevens as David, it's clear he has an ulterior motive. Wingard isn't even trying to hide it, because he knows what we know: this setup can only end badly. And that's when he starts making subtle shifts.

 What I like about The Guest is that, while the family has doubts about David, instead of just insinuating himself and threatening people, he actually does try to help the Petersons improve their lives. Without spoiling too much, David considers it his "mission" to be of assistance to the family, albeit in disproportionately violent ways. The youngest member of the family, Luke (Brendan Meyer), is being bullied by high school jocks, so David follows them to a bar they shouldn't be at and picks a fight. The bullies are grossly outmatched, but they don't know that, and David uses the fact that they shouldn't be there against the bartender calling the cops. Luke is impressed. Similarly impressed is Peterson family patriarch Spencer (Leland Orser), who finds in David a drinking buddy, someone who will listen to his woes about being passed over for a promotion. When the person who got the promotion goes missing, it never even occurs to him the correlation.

 There has to be a suspicious member of the family, even in The Guest, and generally speaking it's Anna Peterson (Maika Monroe), Luke's older sister who works at the diner and is dating Zeke (Chase Williamson), a low level drug dealer. She doesn't trust him at first, but David wins Anna over, until she begins noticing the effect he's having on the rest of the family. And friends going missing, like Craig (Joel David Moore), who might have introduced David to Higgings (Ethan Embry) in order to buy guns. Zeke is arrested, and a gun tied to Craig's death is in his car. Hrm, I wonder how that happened?

 In order to discuss how The Guest diverts from most "cat and mouse" thrillers, I'm going to have to tread into SPOILER territory, so keep that in mind for the rest of this paragraph. It is true that David is not who he says he is, or even possibly "David," but instead of just being any psychopath, it turns out he's a special forces top secret project psychopath. He's trained to remove any evidence once his cover is exposed, and despite his desire to help the Petersons, he can't disobey his training. Instead of strictly being a horror movie, The Guest takes a hard left turn three quarters of the way into the movie and becomes an action film, with David as a sort of Universal Soldier / Terminator force to be reckoned with. By the time Major Carver (Lance Reddick) enters the film, it's transitioned from thriller to full on action, complete with a guns blazing siege on the Peterson home, car chases, and even the standard "how tough is this guy" speech. It transitions back into a variation of a horror film stalk and slash at the end, with a great last line delivered by Anna about how impossible it is to kill David.

 More than the fact that The Guest isn't the movie you thought it was going to be, Wingard makes the film fun. It's much funnier than I was expecting, with more structure than You're Next and a better sense of pacing. There are times when you want David to succeed, in part because it's never clear what he's really up to. Wingard wisely avoids an information dump, so we don't know too much about who he really is or what his long term goals are. Stevens (Downton Abbey) is pitch perfect as the guy who is too good to be true, but even in his misguided, horrible ways, tries to do right by his adopted family until he goes to survival mode. Even at the end, when Anna and Luke manage to overcome him, he tells them not to feel bad about it. He's proud of them. He's a sincere sociopath, and you respect him for that.

 I'm not sure that I've ever seen Maika Monroe or Brendan Meyer in anything else before, but they're more believable young adults than you usually get in this sort of movie. It's always nice to see Leland Orser (Very Bad Things), and while his role is small, it's a good juxtaposition to Sheila Kelley (Lost)'s broken Laura. You almost feel bad for the local scumbags that Williamson (John Dies at the End), Moore (Avatar), and Embry (Cheap Thrills), because they're grossly outmatched, but they seem like all right guys. Too bad most of them have to meet bad ends. Lance Reddick (John Wick) doesn't appear until halfway into the film, when Anna calls in to verify David's identity, but he brings the presence of a grizzled commander, the type that would be sent in to calm down John Rambo.

 All of this is my way of saying that there's a lot to enjoy about The Guest. By the same token, I think that there's a good chance that people will get over-hyped about the film, think that it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, and then come back and say "you idiot this overrated crap is just a lame action movie horror thing!" Meanwhile I see it as the evolution of Adam Wingard as a director, and a clever twist on a genre so worn that it's largely relegated to DTV. I also thought You're Next was very good, and it's definitely a marked improvement on "home invasion" movies with a highly capable Final Girl. There's some overlap between You're Next and The Guest, so if you didn't like the minimalistic, synth-heavy soundtrack to the former, know that there's more of it in the latter. Again, that doesn't bother me, but Cranpire didn't particularly care for it.

 The danger of having "Best Of" lists is that it creates a perception of films that elevate them beyond what I say. It's why I've given up reading festival reviews, and why I might hold back on Nevermore coverage this year - it's a very particular atmosphere that leads to hyperbole. In the age where internet is king, a positive or negative review has to vacillate between "it's the best thing ever" or "what a turd biscuit" with little room for nuance. Point out the flaws in a film and suddenly it's "just okay." Well,  I think that The Guest is a very entertaining film, one that aspires to be fun in the same way that 80s action films are without trying to be just like them. If that sounds like your cup of tea, it's definitely worth seeing, but it's not going to make you breakfast in the morning. Like John Wick, another movie I thought stood out in 2014, it's just a movie. Your mileage may vary, but for my money, The Guest is worth it.

 * The one I'm thinking of specifically is a review of Birdman that's a mixed-positive, largely because the film wasn't as "smart" as it thought it was. Why? Because the reviewer went to see the film framed by the notion that his friends were raving about how smart it was. Similarly, there's a very negative video review of Inherent Vice I saw where one of the commentators insinuates that anyone claiming to "understand" the movie is lying in order to look "cool."

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