Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Adam Wingard
Stars: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley, Brendon Meyer, Lance Riddick.
Whenever I get the MIFF catalogue the first two sections I always check out are the NextGen sidebar and the late night horror offerings as part of the Night Shift, because they often feature some of the best and strongest films and often unearth an unexpected little gem. This year the Night Shift program yielded one of MIFF’s guilty pleasures with The Guest, a tough and twisted action film with elements of horror that seems like a throwback to the action films of the 80s and early 90s that would feature the likes of Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger or even Jean-Claude Van Damme in his heyday.
The Guest is the new film from writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard, who previously gave us the nasty and very bloody home invasion thriller You’re Next as well as a pretty nasty episode in the horror anthology V/H/S. They are a potent filmmaking team who know their genre tropes and happily subvert them.
The Guest basically tells the story of an enigmatic stranger who comes into a small town ready to protect a family from harm, a theme of many classic westerns from Shane through to High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, and even provides the template for Lee Child’s superb Jack Reacher series of novels. Here the stranger is David Collins (played by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), a former soldier who comes to the fictitious town of Moriarty in New Mexico to visit the Peterson family, David claims that he was a friend of their son Caleb who was killed in action in Afghanistan. David is invited to stay with the Petersons for a couple of days, and in that time he manages to ingratiate himself into the family and solve a few problems.
Their teenage son Luke (Brendan Meyer, from tv series Mr Young and the Dwayne Johnson comic misfire Tooth Fairy, etc) is being bullied at school by some jocks on the football team, and David soon beats them up in a bar. And David soon sorts out daughter Anna’s problems with her drug dealing boyfriend. But while Luke hero worships David, Anna (played by Maika Monroe, from It Follows) grows suspicious of his past, and her enquiries bring an even greater threat to the Peterson’s doorstep. It seems that David was part of a covert military experiment aimed at creating the ultimate soldier.
Wingard and Barrett ensure that the threat of violence permeates nearly every frame of this slick and efficient thriller. Wingard and Barrett have obviously been influenced by the early films of John Carpenter, who managed to bring a sense of menace and bloody carnage to the leafy streets of a sleepy small town. Steve Moore’s synthesiser heavy score is also reminiscent of Carpenter’s films. Barrett’s script constantly keeps the audience off balance.
Part of the pleasure is in seeing the charismatic and dashing Stevens, who usually plays a milquetoast aristocrat in Downton Abbey transform into the unstoppable, indestructible kick arse action hero with a mysterious past. Cast against type he is clearly having fun here as an action hero in the same mold as Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. He has obviously worked out and bulked up to be is convincing as the efficient killing machine, and one gets the sense that this is a direction he would like to take his career in.
Leland Orser brings a suitably sad sack quality to his role as Spencer, the downtrodden father who has had trouble earning a promotion at work, until David helps out. Sheila Kelley is good as the trusting mother who welcomes David into the family. Monroe brings a feisty quality to her performance as the resilient and resourceful Anna, and there is also some sexual tension between her and David.
Wingard proves himself a great director of action, and he brings a muscular style to the key action sequences. The final climax, which plays out in a school hall and a hall of mirrors, is reminiscent of the classic Bruce Lee film Enter The Dragon. The Guest is a slick genre exercise that should appeal to audiences who love this kind of stuff. It is very violent at times, but the action is leavened with welcome touches of dark humour. Great stuff, well worth checking out!