I’ve asked myself this question countless times while watching films: “Where is this going?”
There are two reasons to ask this question. The first reason is feeling like a movie is spinning its wheels. Scenes just happen, with no apparent mounting tension or plot. I just watched Rocky II a few weeks ago, so this seems a perfect time to throw it under the bus. Rocky II is functionally plotless for a very large portion of its running time. We’re spending weeks in the life of a character, watching him get married, buy a car, an ugly jacket, a studded wristband, a bunch of watches, and a house. He sucks at reading, gets better at reading, gets a job, gets shitcanned, and none of it has anything to do with beating Apollo Creed at the end of the movie. It’s just a list of things that happened. It’s a story, but not a plot.
The second reason to ask “where is this going?” is because a film is constructing an effective mystery and building a sense of intrigue. Like Rocky II, The Guest engages in plotless “scene stacking” for a large portion of its running time, but the difference between a movie like Rocky II and The Guest is that every scene in the latter feels like it’s leading us somewhere (plot-wise). It does a great job of maintaining your investment in the mystery. It’s rising, whereas Rocky II feels like a horizontal line for a long-ass time. You might argue that the two films are apples and oranges, and you’ve got a point. Eight minutes in, any moron can tell you how Rocky II’s gonna end. The Guest ain’t that easy.
That’s not to say that the film has a convoluted setup. On the contrary, it’s fairly simple: the Petersons lost their firstborn son Caleb when he was KIA in Iraq. One day, a handsome young man named David arrives on their doorstep unannounced. David claims that he was just discharged from the army, has nowhere to go, and that he was close with Caleb. David is softspoken, polite, and incredibly charming, so the Petersons offer to let him stay a while so he can get back on his feet. Twenty-year-old Anna Peterson is wary of this new guest, and her younger brother Luke quickly finds a protector in the coolly menacing David.
The stacking of scenes begins quietly, with David learning about the dynamics of the Peterson family. The family’s inert patriarch, played by Leland Orser in a funny and understated performance, has a progressing booze habit. Mother Laura is stuck at home, grieving for Caleb. Daughter Anna waits tables at the local diner. It’s the kind of place where the serving staff is all young, hot, and female, and the uniform includes short skirts and thigh-high stockings. You know, a diner.
After getting chummy with the Petersons, David proceeds to beat up Luke’s jock bullies in a fantastic scene that is totally laughable on a conceptual level. David and Luke follow the bullies to a local bar that happens to serve members of the high school football team. David orders stereotypically girly cocktails for all the football players and their girlfriends. For himself, David orders a fireball (that’s cinnamon schnapps and Tabasco) so that he can use it as impromptu pepper spray in the ensuing bar fight. It’s profoundly silly on paper, but filmmakers Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard understand how to make these scenes work, no matter conceptually ridiculous they might be.
A big part of why these scenes work is tone, which the film manages with great precision. You’ll hear that the film feels a lot like Halloween and The Terminator, and that’s true. The Guest was conceived after a double feature of those two movies. There aren’t any huge tonal shifts in the film, and the colorful 80’s aesthetic (accompanied by a great synth soundtrack) is particularly seductive. The film takes place around Halloween, which one might think is only for aesthetic reasons, but the increasing amount of Halloween decorations in the film provide a great sense of the passage of time.
Another contributing factor to the film’s tone is its ever-present sense of humor. In a house party scene, David carries in two kegs of beer, one slung over his shoulder like he’s posing for a calendar shoot. The reveal of this is so blantantly erotic that it’s instantly hilarious. Wingard and Barrett love intimidating their audience with David’s smoldering sexuality and chiseled form, but it’s that not the only intimidating thing about David. His cold, dead-eyed stare is an image that will stick with you.
English actor Dan Stevens plays the titular Guest with an impeccable Southern drawl, the stiff poise and robotic charm of Robert Patrick’s T-1000, and infuses him with the rage and reserve of Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives. I’d never seen the guy act before, but Stevens is flat-out incredible in the role, and gives the film’s only true standout performance. There are brief appearances by Joel David Moore and Ethan Embry as a couple of ne’er-do-wells, and they’re fun. I would have loved to see them stick around a bit more, but like Nicolas Winding Refn, Wingard and Barrett understand our fascination with bad, sexy people, so David keeps the movie running when no other fuel is present.
Some well-timed appearances by Lance Reddick and A.J. Bowen uphold the film’s central mystery while the main characters are doing things like getting in trouble at school or talking about mix CDs. But just before things get too quiet, the mystery starts to unfold in a violent cat-and-mouse game across town. If I had anything overtly negative to say about the film, I could say that the big reveal lacks impact, and the film’s budgetary constraints start to become more apparent in the pre-climax build. Some of the action feels clumsily staged, but all of those issues are momentary as the film races toward the final confrontation.
So while The Guest’s first half might make you wonder “where is this going?”, Dan Stevens’ magnetic central performance, the fun tone, the mystery, and the strong aesthetic will keep you hooked. The Guest is a damn fine night at the movies, and considering how much I disliked You’re Next, I’d say it’s a hell of an improvement. The Guest is currently playing in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Miami, Seattle, Phoenix, and San Antonio. It will arrive in Austin on September 26, and will get a wider US release on October 3. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go listen to the soundtrack.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars