*** out of ****
Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett made a splash last year with their nifty home invasion thriller You’re Next, a film that initially seemed like another version of faceless intruders terrorizing victims, but proved to be more clever than that and with a darker sense of humor. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was a fun, re-watchable flick that marked Wingard and Barrett as talents to watch. Their newest collaboration, The Guest, is another enjoyably crazy genre effort with a terrific lead performance from Dan Stevens.
Stevens plays a soldier who shows up on the doorstep of a New Mexico family, claiming to be a close friend of their son who died overseas. The parents (Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser) are charmed, but their 20-year-old daughter (Maika Monroe) and teenage son (Brendan Meyer) are skeptical about the visitor’s intentions.
For its first half, the script does a good job of making the audience wonder if Stevens is just an antihero on the run or a genuinely dangerous lunatic. Like many thrillers, once answers start being given, the plot doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, but there’s a lot of fun to be had along the way. Just as Wingard and Barrett found creative ways to dress up old horror movie tropes in You’re Next, they successfully add spice to well-worn cliches here. A scene where Stevens takes on the bullies tormenting Meyer has been done before, but it’s executed here with enough wit and spark to make it seem fresh.
The film’s biggest asset is Stevens, though, who delivers a star making performance. He played the kindly Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey and turned in strong supporting work as a drug dealer in A Walk Among the Tombstones. He has charisma to spare and an impressive range as an actor. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him in box office blockbusters or scooping up acting awards in the future.
Detractors might argue that The Guest, much like You’re Next, is a little too nasty and mean-spirited (and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong), but it’s willingness to go for broke is also part of what sets it apart from other genre fare. The ending shot doesn’t fully work, either.
Ultimately, The Guest is a pretty good movie with an excellent lead performance. Barrett and Wingard prove once again that they’re promising filmmakers to keep an eye on. They haven’t made a great film yet, but they have the talent to do so.