Adam Wingard Dan Stevens

The Guest: A Modern Genre Masterpiece

Friday, September 19, 2014 Rob Samuelson

The Guest

Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser, Lance Reddick
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

It's been 16 years since genre master John Carpenter made a good movie – and I'm of the minority opinion on Vampires – and 28 since he made a transcendent one – Big Trouble in Little China. What's he done in that time? Some abysmal creative bellyflops, a couple episodes of a horror anthology television series, and generally joining the long list of great filmmakers who fell on harder times, creatively speaking, as they got older.

But that's not true. I don't believe it. Carpenter is not dead. I can prove it. He's on Twitter. No, I have a different theory. The man who made Halloween, The Thing, They Live, and Big Trouble didn't lose his chops and fade into obscurity. He simply took the part of himself that lives and breathes good movies and made it possess the bodies of filmmaking partners Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, whose newest collaboration, The Guest, opens this weekend. And holy crow does that bequeathment pay off handsomely.

But let's back up a second to discuss genre filmmaking. It's an amorphous term. To determine if a movie is “genre” or not, you need to ask yourself some questions.

Are you having fun? Does it make you think too much? Is it a little outlandish? Would your grandparents think it's trash? Would you call it a movie or a film (yes, there's a difference)?

Genre movies are less concerned with making grand statements about the human condition. That's not to say they're without thematic merit, but their aims are wildly different from, say, a Yasujiro Ozu film. Entertainment comes first. Like all well executed films, genre movies require a foundation of characters with discernible motivations, but they require a bit more heave-ho in the way they attack their plots. They need to religiously adhere to the Trey Parker-Matt Stone “but/therefore” rule. Every story beat should go as such: “This happens, therefore this happens, but this happens, therefore this happens.” Don't let any scene end with the words “and then.” This creates a rhythm, a sense of direction, and that direction should be forever forward. Let every scene either inform character or advance the plot – hopefully both simultaneously – and you're halfway to making a great genre picture. It's what is known as a rollicking good time at the movies.

So remember, in cases like these, causation is king. This sounds like alliteration when spoken, so hear me out.

Okay, you still with me? Great.

The Guest. It's superb. That causation thing I mentioned a couple lines up? It does it in spades. It gets going right away with some ominous electronic music playing as the camera follows a jogging David – played by Downton Abbey's inveterate Englishman Dan Stevens, who does what amounts to a restrained Matthew McConaughey vocal impression, and his performance is quasi-McConaugheyan to boot – before a classic jump scare tactic to introduce the title of the movie in retro purple lettering on a black background via a loud music cue and a smash cut.

It spends the next 30 minutes or so setting up the world of the movie. This is important, because for all the pedal-to-the-medal bluster I showed a couple paragraphs ago, you can't get to that headlong abandon without taking time to get to know the people you paid to spend 90 minutes of your time with. You don't need to root for them necessarily, but you need to find what makes them work, and therefore what makes them fascinating.

David rings the doorbell of the Peterson family, explaining he fought in the “Middle East” – the movie is careful not to say which war, for reasons we'll get into later – with their fallen son, to whom he had promised to send his dying “I love you”s to his relatives. Laura (Sheila Kelley), the family matriarch, invites him to stay because she's grieving over her son's death. Her husband, Spencer (Leland Orser), a borderline alcoholic – likely also due to his son's death – is less than thrilled about the move. Their remaining children, a “21 next month” daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe) and a bullied high schooler, Luke (Brendan Meyer) are alternatively skeptical and optimistic about their new family friend.

Things about David aren't completely right. He makes vaguely threatening conversation and sits ramrod straight on his fallen comrade's bed, staring blankly into space.

But damned if he isn't helpful! There he is, working with Luke on his homework and humbly suggesting it's Luke who's teaching him, taking the vacated big brother. He does the dishes for Laura. Over a slew of beers, he listens to Spencer talk about his anxieties about being passed over for a promotion so a 20-something with a degree could take it. And he gives Anna a glimpse of his beefy soldier man physique just out of the shower – Stevens is “doughy Matthew” no more, Downton fans.

David picks up Luke from school and notices a bruise on his cheek. He knows the drill and asks Luke to point out who gave him the shiner and follows the group of movie bullies – make no mistake, these people don't exist in this form in real life – to a bar that doesn't card “if you're on the football team.” He teaches Luke some lessons about standing up for yourself and orders some emasculating drinks for their football player targets. This doesn't go well, David gets wet, and the football jerks get punished, excessively so in the first of several neatly choreographed fight sequences in The Guest.

David clearly knows his stuff regarding violence. He's also not entirely truthful about himself. People start dying around town mysteriously, some of whose deaths lead directly to the Petersons' gain, and Anna decides to check up on her new housemate. A call to an Army information center later and the movie takes a turn toward the wacky and the ultra violent. Since hardly anyone has had a chance to see it yet, I'll walk around where the film goes from here, but it's gleefully fun, with odes to genre greats of all vintages, from the Carpenter classics above (especially Halloween) to more recent fare like 2011's Drive.

Now, I mentioned the vagueness about the nature and geography David's service. This would seem to go against what I said about clear motivations for characters. The thing is, though, where David served in the Army doesn't matter for plot, character, and thematic reasons.

By the point in the movie when he's asked, the audience already knows there's something amiss about David. This sets the expectation that we will learn more about him. We don't need everything up front, and The Guest doles out David's information methodically, piece by piece, sometimes with intentional vagueness. This is not a bad thing because it derives from an inherently mysterious character. He's an obviously withholding individual, with plenty of extra angles to work, and director Wingard lays that foundation well with camera pauses on Stevens's blank eyes and quick glances when confronted by possibly damaging information. It's a deft use of the cinematic medium to convey information without clunky exposition. It's a statement on how our country treats its soldiers, in that they are to be used for our purposes whenever we feel like and then left to fend for themselves after they are no longer useless to the country. This is some fairly heavy stuff The Guest makes light of without hitting you over the head with it.

And when Wingard and writing partner Barrett do get expository, with the use of ultimate exposition machine Lance Reddick (The Wire and Fringe), it's as bare bones as can be, because the audience doesn't need to know how David got to be the way he is, they just need to know why he's behaving this way. That is a much easier and more efficient conversation to show on film. It serves dual purposes, to put the character's actions and motivations in context and in sync, and to cut out the clunky explanation that can, and usually does, take the audience out of the movie. The specifics of David's case don't matter to the problem at hand. Wingard and Barrett know instinctively the necessity of keeping the audience with the movie's characters and in the world they have created. If the viewers don't need to know something, they can fill in the blanks themselves. All they need is to know what sets the conflict in motion and the possible ways to resolve the conflict. And through a plethora of carefully planned setups, Wingard and Barrett are able to knock them down with aplomb.

And it's fun. Much like their previous movie, last year's You're Next, the filmmakers get all kinds of mileage out of character-based humor. A confused stare after a statement like, “Cash is easy to get,” is perfectly timed. A confrontation with Luke's school principal shows the comedic possibilities of litigation threats and fibs about personal identity. Pumpkin carving with David is hilarious, develops his character, and sets up the climax. A thumb's up puts a darkly comic end to that climax. And the final shot is a terrific laugh line despite all the violence, death, and mayhem that preceded it.

Wingard and Barrett are rising stars in the mainstream consciousness, but they're already masters of their domain. If you don't see The Guest near the top of my 2014 top 10 list around the holidays, this will have been a stupefyingly great year for film. As it stands, though, we should already count ourselves lucky to have had a movie this good be released. Go see it. Ensure these marvelous talents get to continue making new genre classics.

Carpenter lives.

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