DOWNTON Abbey star Dan Stevens emerges from this crazy-good action thriller as a bona fide movie star
The Guest (15)
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Starring: Dan Stevens, Lance Reddick, Maika Monroe
Star rating: * * * *
Having produced and starred in last year’s dreary Summer in February, former Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens looked as if he might be just another well-educated British actor content to carve out a lucrative career for himself playing dishy drips in middling period dramas. With The Guest, however, he obliterates that image completely, teaming up with indie-horror director Adam Wingard to play an entertainingly badass US soldier in a crazy-good (emphasis on the crazy) action thriller that subverts expectations as deliriously as its star does his image. Indeed, with the eyes of Paul Newman, the skills of Jason Bourne and the killer instinct of the Terminator, Stevens confidently turns himself into a postmodern action star in a film that’s fully aware of its status as highly tuned genre trash without being annoyingly self-referential about it.
Stevens plays David, a mysterious, recently discharged soldier who shows up at the family home of Caleb Peterson, a fallen colleague whose folks he’s promised to look in on and help out in any way he can. Unfailingly polite and respectful, David is an almost instant hit with Mrs Peterson (Sheila Kelley) and, after a few ice-breaking beers, with Mr Peterson (Leland Orser) too. His Southern manners, sympathetic ear, and the fact that a photo of him and Caleb is already on their mantelpiece, makes him something of a surrogate son, a small way to keep their own recently departed son’s memory alive.
Their other children aren’t all that sure about him, though. Oldest daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) and her younger teen brother Luke (Brendan Meyer) don’t take quite as much comfort from having a physical reminder of their late sibling, particularly one with an occasional thousand-yard-stare and hard-to-read rictus grin. Those are the first little indicators that Wingard and his regular screenwriter Simon Barrett use to hint that all is not quite right with David (well, that and the retro-horror title sequence).
But these subtle signifiers are all masterfully deployed to build giddy anticipation for things going bull goose loon. This starts to happen when David takes the way-too-young Luke to a bar to help him confront the bullying that’s been making his school life a misery. What follows is a gloriously violent, Road House-style fight as David takes out Luke’s tormentors with a proficiency that’s wholly inappropriate given their status as underage school kids.
But far from the outrageous nature of this being a fault of the film, it’s a nifty way to start seeding the enjoyably over-the-top explanation for David’s demeanour, something that starts being hinted at with the midpoint arrival of a The Wire’s Lance Reddick as a military police officer keen to track him down.
What’s great about this, though, is that while the subsequent explanation is almost hilariously generic, the film keeps expanding and embracing its silliness while simultaneously delivering the kind of hard-edged genre thrills that have been thin on the ground since family-friendly comic book movies and ponderous Young Adult adaptations bumped traditional action fare to the sidelines.
That’s shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone who’s been following Wingard’s work. From his trippy micro-budget horror debut Pop Skull in 2007 through to his collaborations with Barrett on the arthouse serial killer drama A Horrible Way to Die, the V/H/S films and last year’s brilliantly subversive You’re Next, he’s one of a new breed of American filmmakers like Ti West and Joe Swanberg who’ve been crossing the indie/horror divide and reinvigorating the genre with smart films that understand how to push an audience’s buttons in interesting ways.
With The Guest, Wingard has applied that sensibility to old school action movies, but his love of horror is evident throughout and he even hops genres a few times towards the pleasingly out-there finale, bringing in elements of teen slasher movies to complement the Halloween setting (like a lot of filmmakers of late, he also pays homage to the ultimate genre-hopper John Carpenter in the form of a retro electro synth score, but its use here at least feels earned and justified rather than some bogus way to accrue instant credibility).
At the centre of it all there’s Stevens, and it’s hard to overestimate just how much fun he is here. Clearly relishing his chance to crack skulls, create mayhem and go a little (well, a lot) psycho, all the while getting the chance to capitalise on his movie-star looks (one particular scene from the film has, apparently, racked up in excess of seven million Google searches since the trailer hit the net early this year), he emerges from The Guest a genuine movie star, one whom it’s not hard to imagine the producers of a certain spy franchise keeping a close eye on from now on.
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Star rating: * * *
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Star rating: *
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Star rating: * *
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Star rating: * *
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