Film review: The Guest (15)

DOWNTON Abbey star Dan Stevens emerges from this crazy-good action thriller as a bona fide movie star
Dan Stevens in The Guest. Picture: ContributedDan Stevens in The Guest. Picture: Contributed
Dan Stevens in The Guest. Picture: Contributed

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.

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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).

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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.


Life of Crime (15)

Directed by: Daniel Schechter

Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Mos Def, John Hawkes, Tim Robbins

Star rating: * * *

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Jennifer Aniston gets her first decent role in aeons in this unofficial prequel to Jackie Brown. Re-uniting the characters from Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of the late Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, the film turns Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch into a enjoyably low-key period piece, with Mos Def and John Hawkes playing younger versions of Ordel Robbie and his partner-in-crime Louis, and Aniston nailing the ennui required to play Mickey, the unappreciated country-club-frequenting wife of a property tycoon (Tim Robbins) not all that distraught when Ordel and Louis kidnap Mickey and demand a million-dollar ransom. Though the film lacks the cinematic flair Tarantino brought to Leonard’s work, writer/director Daniel Schechter does a good job of translating the crackle and snap of Leonard’s dialogue to the big screen – and he gives the movie a faded glamour that perfectly suits his cast.

Before I Go to Sleep (15)

Directed by: Rowan Joffe

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong

Star rating: *

Based on SJ Watson’s twist-laden thriller about a 40-something amnesiac who wakes every morning thinking she’s in her early 20s, Before I Go To Sleep could largely be written off as “Memento for morons” if that didn’t imply there was some fun to be had watching Nicole Kidman negotiating the silliness of the premise. Alas, as the victim of a traumatic attack who has to reconstruct her life every day – with the aid of strangers whom she has to learn to trust again, and technology that she never seems remotely freaked out by (smart phones, the internet) – Kidman, inset, is yet again thoroughly terrible, hamstrung by a director (Rowan Joffe) who appears to have no idea how to turn the limited perspective of the narrative (we see everything from Kidman’s point-of-view) into compelling drama.

The Hundred-Foot Journey (PG)

Directed by: Lasse Hallström

Starring: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal

Star rating: * *

Following Chocolat and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lasse Hallström delivers another typically handsome but hollow adaptation of a middlebrow novel for the delectation of audiences who just want a bit of undemanding escapism. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but this French-set tale does rather waste Helen Mirren and the great Om Puri. Cast as the proprietors of rival eateries (she owns a Michelin-starred restaurant, he a newly opened Indian street-food emporium), the culture clash that arises from their differing approaches to food belies how, deep down, there’s really not all that much separating their precision-vs-passion philosophies to cooking – something reinforced by a subplot revolving around Puri’s son (Manish Dayal) proving himself worthy enough to work in Mirren’s kitchen.

Island of Lemurs: Madagascar (U)

Directed by: David Douglas

Star rating: * *

At just 39 minutes, this 3D IMAX release brings to mind that joke at the beginning of Annie Hall: the running time feels kind of stingy, but the film itself isn’t all that good. Still, as kid-friendly nature docs extolling the virtues of conservation go, it proves serviceable enough when capturing the divergent personalities and strange beauty of the many different species of lemurs endemic to the African island of Madagascar. Unlike rival Disney Nature’s big screen docs, though, this isn’t especially good at creating drama out of its subjects’ endangered situation, which leaves Morgan Freeman’s narration lacking any kind of dynamism.