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Tag Team Review: The Guest

Of the various film bloggers who’ve agreed to take part in this project, Adam Daniels has the distinction of being the only one whom I’ve personally met. By the time I had arrived at Pacific University, Adam had long since established himself as a respected leader and a towering force of personality among the student body. He is now responsible for I Am Your Target Demographic, a blog about blockbuster movies and TV shows.

Adam missed out on The Guest back when it was first in theaters, and I confess that I did as well. And considering that the film only made $2.3 million worldwide (a pathetic $332 thousand domestic), chances are that you didn’t see it either. It’s easy to see how the film slipped through the cracks, given that it was up against The Maze Runner in what was otherwise an awkward period right at the start of the awards season. And for my part, I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of seeing another film from the writer/director pairing behind You’re Next, which was way more style than substance.

But as time passed and good word about the film began to grow, I started taking another look at the cast. And it looked damn good in retrospect. Maika Monroe starred in this one, just before she knocked It Follows out of the park. Dan Stevens was recently cast as the Beast in Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, which is fucking hilarious given his role here. Lance Reddick appears as yet another badass, Chase Williamson of John Dies at the End has a role, Portland’s own Joel David Moore makes an appearance… hell, even Candice Patton of “The Flash” pokes her head in.

Also, looking back, I remembered that You’re Next was proof enough that the team of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett could potentially deliver some amazing thrills if they only had the right story. In this case, the story begins with Caleb Peterson, a young man in the US military who was recently KIA in the Middle East. While his family is still mourning, they receive a random visit from David (Dan Stevens), who had served with Caleb and was there when he died. Naturally, the Petersons are all too eager to take David under their roof for a few days.

David acts like a perfectly fine young gentleman, and I wish I could tell you that he’s every bit as honest and upstanding as he looks. But then we wouldn’t have a movie, would we?

Right off the bat, everything seems fine. We’ve got a grieving family that’s been given an unexpected link to their dead son, but it could all turn out to be a lie or something even worse. That’s a strong emotional hook to hang a story on, and there’s a lot of potential here for suspense. As an added bonus, the film takes place just before Halloween, naturally an ideal time frame for a horror film. Which makes it all the more sad that all this potential is squandered.

To be charitable, this movie is a slow burn. To be blunt, nothing happens until halfway in. Sure, things happen in fits and starts through the first 45 minutes, but the story fails to pick up any real momentum until the film is already halfway over. That’s a huge problem in so many ways. To start with, it fails as a horror movie because there aren’t any scares until the climax. It also fails as a suspense thriller, because none of the characters are given any reason to suspect that anything’s wrong until the halfway point. Sure, we the audience get the occasional clue that David isn’t on the level, but nothing that moves the plot forward in any compelling way. As an action movie? We’ll get back to that, but I’d argue that the film doesn’t have enough action scenes to qualify as an entry in the genre.

As a note, I agree it’s a slow burn. I, however, found it to be suspenseful in a very untraditional way, which kept me interested. Since nothing of real consequence happened for the first half, I had the optimism to believe that something major would be revealed eventually. And something about the first half was… unsettling. I didn’t read anything and I didn’t know anything about this movie, but the eerie setting and brilliant soundtrack let me know from the opening credits that things weren’t as they seemed. I enjoyed the slow burn and I think it mostly paid off. We’ll get to that in a second.

It’s tough to figure out what this film was setting out to do because the front half is almost entirely made of filler and everything of importance was crammed into the back half. And this could so easily have been avoided. There are so many suspicious deaths that start cropping up just before the third act, and there’s no reason why the bodies couldn’t have started piling on at some earlier point. This might have given our protagonist (that would be Anna Peterson, played by Maika Monroe) at least 15 minutes’ more notice that something was up, which in turn would have made her a more active participant in the plot. But no. Instead, we get character reveals that come off as cheap and lazy because of how rushed they are.

It also doesn’t help that the climax features one of the dumbest shootouts I’ve ever seen in a movie. I won’t spoil exactly what happens, but suffice to say that a cadre of professional military-grade assassins are made to look like a bunch of drunken nincompoops. And it’s not because they’re up against a worthy adversary, it’s because they inexplicably shoot hundreds of rounds into solid walls, their bulletproof vests are apparently made of Kleenex instead of Kevlar, and not one of them thought to bring a single grenade. Granted, the fistfights are okay, but that climactic gunfight is just shit.

Yes, I concede that this gunfight was a bit strange (and came out of nowhere) but I think I understand what was intended, even if that maybe didn’t translate well to the screen. They wanted to show “David” as this dominating force but instead of allowing him to truly take out these soldiers, they compensated in a strange way by making them the equivalent of Stormtroopers from the Star Wars films, in that they couldn’t hit a target that was standing still. So I get what they were trying to do, but yes, this fight was a weird misstep for the film.

Moving on, let’s talk about the characters. Specifically, there’s not much there. Anna is a rebellious young woman who dresses and acts in such a way that she seems to deliberately want to piss her parents off. She also hangs out frequently with her stoner boyfriend (played by Chase Williamson), her other stoner friend (Joel David Moore) and her sexpot best friend (Tabatha Shaun). As for her brother (Luke, played by Brendan Meyer), he’s a shy and withdrawn bully target who routinely gets beaten up by one-dimensional bullies. Their mother (Sheila Kelley) doesn’t really do anything except cry and act concerned for everyone. Their dad (Leland Orser) is an uptight alcoholic who doesn’t even have the spine to be an abusive stereotype. Lance Reddick plays the stock military hardass, but at least he has the charisma to make it work.

Though Luke and Anna at least get the chance to grow and develop, and David is an exception whom we’ll get to in a minute, the characters are all painted in very broad strokes, which is anathema to any good suspense thriller. It might be perfectly acceptable for a horror film or an action film, except that only one or two of them get killed off before the climax. If we have to wait that long for the satisfaction of watching these unsympathetic characters get frightened, beat up, or killed, that doesn’t exactly make for good cinema.

So what kept this film watchable? Two things. First, the film is technically quite impressive. The camerawork, lighting, and editing are all superb. And despite my problems with the stupid climactic shootout, at least it looked good. The soundtrack is another plus, with music that beautifully evoked ’80s/’90s era nostalgia without overdoing it (the way It Follows did, for example).

The other big selling point is of course Dan Stevens. It’s a good thing that the camera focuses on him through pretty much the entire movie, because this guy was born to be a star. Stevens is effortlessly charming in a slightly imposing sort of way, such that it’s never easy to tell what he’ll do at any given time. Something in his eyes makes it so compelling to watch this character and try to figure out what he’s thinking. So compelling, in fact, that he keeps the film watchable through the huge stretches of time in which he doesn’t do much of anything except talk everyone else into getting his way.

For me, everything about The Guest comes back to its abysmal pacing. The one-dimensional characters certainly don’t help — if they’re not fighting for their lives or getting killed off with greater frequency, why am I bothering to watch such unsympathetic people?

My closing two cents. I admire that this film tried to do something unique, which is rare when the theaters are so packed with reboots and sequels. They tried to make an ’80s horror movie where the killer isn’t some silent lumbering murderer, but instead a manipulative and deadly killing machine. I thought the music and cinematography were brilliant, completely evoking the feeling of an ’80s slasher film. And while the shootouts in the film were lackluster, the brutal hand-to-hand sequences made up for it, in my opinion. As a fusion of slasher film and action, I enjoyed it, but yes, it does take a long time for that reveal and for the film to kick into gear. It was refreshing though to see a risk taken that we don’t often see.

Wingard and Barrett do get points for originality and effort, as they also did for You’re Next. The film has some good moments, and Stevens’ performance is well worth a watch. Monroe and Meyer also get to shine in a few later scenes as their characters develop. But overall, this film pales in comparison to so many other action films, horror movies, and suspense thrillers made in the past couple years. Not recommended.

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