Published Oct 17, 2014Adam Wingard has gotten incrementally better with each successive film since his psychedelic freakout Popskull. You're Next was thought to be the major breakthrough that would bring his flashy and confident style to a broader audience, but history will only remember it as a minor footnote that preceded his first truly great film.
A mysterious war veteran is invited to stay with the family of his fallen war buddy. Dan Stevens, not only a classically-trained actor best known for Downton Abbey, but also a Cambridge-trained poet, grounds these early scenes with a weight that you might expect in a parlour drama. When the cartoonish action and zany winks at genre convention start coming hard and fast, it's this foundation that makes the film more than just silly fun.
The suave and confident guest is a welcome addition to the family. He acts as a surrogate son, a mentor, a shoulder to cry on and even a love interest to the various family members until a string of mysterious deaths give them cause to question what kind of person is sleeping in their dead son's bedroom. Wingard manages something quite difficult: As each scene escalates in tension, the offbeat humour escalates at the same rate. The more menacing Stevens plays it, the sillier and more fun his character becomes.
While Stevens' performance is a breakout one, every actor involved contributes something memorable. Maika Monroe also manages to balance quirky fun with emotional gravity. She swoons at a shirtless Stevens in pure slasher flick fashion, and gets high with a bunch of pothead pals straight out of the Friday the 13th franchise. But when she later learns of the deaths of loved ones, she breaks down like it really means something.
Lance Reddick as Major Carver best exemplifies the film's ability to exist in two worlds. Up until his introduction, outside of some slick action choreography, The Guest plays like complete realism. Then Reddick enters the proceedings, barking orders like he just stepped out of the latest G.I. Joe movie. His slick delivery of some quasi-science fictional exposition introduces a far-out new dimension to the film in the most fluid way possible.
Wingard closes with a chase scene through a house of mirrors that is unabashed style for style's sake. The pounding synth soundtrack and Wingard's technical showmanship both peak at the same time, and by the time the credits roll, it's hard to deny that a new master of genre filmmaking has arrived.