FEARNET Movie Review: 'The Guest' [SXSW 2014]


If you've seen indie horror films like A Horrible Way to Die, You're Next, or either V/H/S anthology, then you're already familiar with filmmaking partners Simon Barrett (screenwriter) and Adam Wingard (director). Along with their frequent collaborators (like producer Keith Calder and a bunch of awesome actors), Barrett and Wingard have been more than content to create the sort low-budget cool concepts that generally go over really well at festivals and then again on home video. But no more. The gentlemen have temporarily turned their attention on something best described as (yes), a "thriller," but thankfully it's a pretty damn slick thriller.

The Guest is about a handsome, humble, and very decent man who goes to visit the mother of his deceased army buddy, gets invited to spend a few days at the Peterson household, and ends up... well, let's just say that newcomer David quickly has a resounding impact on the lives of Mom (Sheila Kelley), Dad (Leland Orser), and teenage siblings Anna (Maika Monroe) and Luke (Brendan Meyer). To the casual (or even astute) viewer, David (Dan Stevens) is a charming and helpful veteran who has nothing but good intentions.
Well, obviously that's simply not the case. David is hiding all sorts of devious secrets, but the fun part about The Guest is that this ostensibly shady character is simply very likable. Could David be lying about his time spent in the war? Maybe he's a charming lunatic! Or perhaps he's telling the truth but has some old skeletons hanging in the closet anyway. Barrett and Wingard take clear pleasure in delaying the answers for as long as possible, which allows the first half of The Guest to feel like a very dark version of Uncle Buck -- and it makes the hyper-kinetic third act carry some emotional weight. 
Little things like tension, character, and "emotional weight" mean a lot, and doubly so when you're watching a film that's so linear and straightforward in the narrative department. We grow to like the Petersons very quickly, and it's established early (and often) how cool David is, but since this is not a fluffy romantic comedy, well, things are going to get ugly once David's true plan is made clear. The villain is nearly as appealing as the excellently resourceful Anna, for example, and that just makes the "waiting for the other shoe to drop" a lot more fun than a screenplay written in shades of strictly Good Guys and Bad Guys.
As a director, Mr. Wingard has clearly stepped his game up, at least in a purely visual sense, but he hasn't lost his touch for expeditious storytelling and frequent doses of very dark humor. At its best moments, The Guest is a character study on an inscrutable character, a fast-paced thriller with moments of shocking violence and legitimate intensity, and a "whodunnit" that's actually more of a "whydunnit."
Toss in an excellent lead performance from Mr. Stevens, some fine support work from everyone mentioned above (plus Lance Reddick as the only high-ranking official who knows David's secrets), a few "indie cast" surprises that work very well, and some truly kick-ass music, and that's that. Congrats to our old pals Barrett and Wingard for trying something quite a bit different from "straight" horror, and also for pulling it off so darn well. This is a slick, fast, fun thriller flick.