The Guest review

From the director of You're Next, and starring Downton Abbey alumnus Dan Stevens, The Guest is really rather special...

Trailers are a bit tricky sometimes. Or, to describe the problem with them more aptly, they’re sometimes not tricky enough. The marketing for Adam Wingard’s latest, The Guest, hasn’t given away too many of the surprises to be had in this unclassifiable throwback, but does feel like the early viewers who enjoyed it cold, during its festival run, might have enjoyed it best.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid the promos, this film opens with a lone man jogging down a highway early one morning and arriving at the home of a family who have recently had a son, Caleb, die in service in Afghanistan. He introduces himself as David, (Dan Stevens) a comrade of Caleb’s who is fulfilling his friend’s dying wish to check that his family are doing alright.

Caleb’s mum (Sheila Kelley) promptly invites him to stay with the family until he finds his feet and the charming young veteran quickly wins over her husband (Leland Orser), son Luke (Brendan Meyer). The daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe) isn’t so quick to take him to her heart, but as he ingratiates himself with the family, he may well have brought danger to their doorstep.

There’s little point in pretending that this isn’t Dan Stevens’ film. The British star is best known on either side of the Atlantic as Downton Abbey‘s Matthew Crawley, but whatever Wingard saw in him to suggest the work he puts in here, it pays off spectacularly.

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The film has a similar sort of vibe to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, building the atmosphere of a 1980s straight-to-video flick, taking its sweet time to get going and centring the action on a polite, super-competent young man with hidden depths. Comparisons to Ryan Gosling wouldn’t go wide of the mark, but there’s an electrifying intensity in David that is entirely Stevens’ own.

The nearest comparison would be to a Terminator. He never really talks about his time in the army or makes any vocal indication of just how tough he really is. His actions speak for themselves and he’s not the type to issue a warning before dispensing benevolent violence on behalf of his surrogate family.

As in Wingard’s You’re Next, another subversive genre flick that made a big splash when it was finally unleashed from the shelf this time last year, Stevens is surrounded by a cast of relative unknowns, featuring Monroe and Meyer as revelations in their own right. Their characters are troubled by their respective social circles, but each find their resourcefulness coaxed out by David’s presence in different ways.

They each play a big part in keeping things level before all hell breaks loose, which actually takes a surprisingly long time. It’s Lance Reddick’s Carver who precipitates the turnaround, bringing more dread into the already foreboding atmosphere as he draws ever closer to David.

Once he arrives, the film dives head-first into horror territory from there on out, with a walking neurological nightmare disrupting the relative calm of the first hour. No matter how much you know going in, you really won’t know how it’s all going to shake out by the time it gets to its bonkers third act, which goes full 80s on us by taking place on what looks like the set of a messed-up music video.

That’s the stuff that makes The Guest feel like an instant cult classic, but Wingard’s accomplishment here is in suffusing the whole film with that atmosphere and holding back the theatrics until the characters have been well established.

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Delivered straight-up and without compromise, The Guest may be the best genre movie of the year. The only trouble we’d have in declaring it so, is in telling you which genre it actually is. However Netflix ends up classifying it In the future, Wingard manages it all masterfully, delivering another subversive and unpredictable exploitation flick that makes an instant star of Dan Stevens.

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4 out of 5