This year’s Drive? Well, you’d be surprised...
This low budget indie mystery thriller from the makers of the superb – and equally unpredictable – horror-thriller You’re Next, plays out as a surprisingly stylish blend of The Hitcher and Drive, complete with all the requisite retro 80s accoutrements. And it may just end up being one of your favourite films of the year.Right from the opening title card – which looks like it could have been lifted directly from any one of a dozen different 80s horrors – and brooding, electronic John Carpenter-esque score thwapping away in the background, you know that this is going to be something very different from anything you could have possibly expected.
A stranger, in army fatigues, running down the road. He arrives at the doorstep of a grieving mother, still suffering the loss of her son in battle. He says he was in her son’s unit; that they were close friends – that he was there when the son died – and that he’s there to check that the family are ok and pass on their late child’s love to each and every family member. The woman, tearful, invites him in. The stranger says that his name is David, and points to a picture on the mantelpiece where he is standing next to their late son and the rest of the squad.Ingratiating himself into the family unit, David soon finds himself counselling their teenage son who is suffering at the hands of bullies, and chaperoning their precocious 20-year-old daughter, as the husband and wife argue over whether or not he should even be there. He seems like the perfect guest, using his military combat skills and powers of persuasion to fix almost all of their problems. But the daughter is suspicious that something is not quite right about him...
The Guest plays with your expectations at every turn, drawing you in, toying with you, manipulating you, and then spinning you around so that you don’t know which way is up. With a compelling lead performance, and excellent supporting contributions; an outstanding 80s-flavour diegetic soundtrack and haunting electronic score; and atmospheric, claustrophobic style heightening the tension at every stage, this is one of the greatest sleeper gems of the year – a festival-celebrated indie flick which may well blow you away.
Remember when a frustrated moviegoer filed a lawsuit because she felt that the trailer to the modern classic Refn/Gosling thriller Drive was misleading, promoting the film as a Fast and Furious-style flick when it was anything but? Well, expect the same kind of reaction from closed-minded audience members who’ve seen the trailer to The Guest and are expecting some kind of 80s throwback action thriller, which the likes of Seagal and Van Damme would have peddled frivolously back in the day.
Indeed you can tell a lot more about this film from the stylish GTA: Vice City-style promo poster, a simple silhouette feature which better reflects the intentions of the filmmakers, who have knowingly paid tribute to a whole horde of 80s features – from the likes of John Carpenter, Michael Mann and William Friedkin. The film even tips its hat to the kind of films that Van Damme and Seagal may have once starred in – but blends them all into one magical melting pot; part action-thriller, part suspense-horror, and all against expectations.
There's a danger that rave reviews will heighten expectations, but the misleading prejudice established by the trailer needs to be redressed.
In much the same way that Joe Wright’s superb action-thriller, Hanna, took a Bourne-like premise and envisioned it as seen through a wondrous dark fairytale lens, all set to a stomping score from The Chemical Brothers, The Guest pools its retro 80s ingredients into a very unique mould, simmering with serious intensity, despite a seemingly innocuous build-up; ready to dip into action – and horror – fields at a moment’s notice, and throw you off the ride if you’re not holding on tightly.
Downton Abbey mainstay Dan Stevens, similarly shatters your expectations, providing a very different turn here as the good-looking, smooth-talking stranger, whose disarming smile belies a darker streak beneath. He’s desperately enigmatic, and pitch-perfect in his rendition of this mysterious stranger who is equal parts charming and deadly. Intelligent and quick-thinking – he can get himself out of most any situation with words alone, resorting to violence only when he chooses to – his military vet is actually also surprisingly funny at times, further drawing you in despite the fact that you know that something is off with this guy. It’s one of those memorable performances that reminds us of the likes of Rutger Hauer’s defining turn in The Hitcher; an anti-hero character who will have you on-side even after the point where he crosses the line.
The supporting cast members are also perfectly chosen, with relative newcomer Maika Monroe (Labor Day) standing out as the suspicious daughter. Monroe superbly balances girl-next-door innocence with trashy punk tendencies, and will surely be a star to watch over the coming years. LA Law vet Sheila Kelley also brings a certain authenticity to her role as the grieving mother, who warms to the seemingly natural idea of the mysterious but charming David slipping into the void made by the loss of her son. Go-to neurotic psycho Leland Orser (Alien Resurrection, The Bone Collector) manages to rein it in as the concerned father in the family, and it’s perhaps only The Wire’s Lance Reddick who struggles to convince when his role as an investigating military officer starts to dip into more action-driven territory, although it’s the tiniest of slights in an otherwise pitch-perfect cast list.
Any film which that reminds us of everything from Drive to The Hitcher; Hanna to the Bourne movies, and of everybody from John Carpenter to Michael Mann, deserves your attention.
Director/Editor Adam Wingard and collaborator and Writer Simon Barrett – whose 2011 slasher You’re Next similarly defied expectations, wooing festival audiences and reinvigorating the horror genre all in one fell swoop – reunite for an equally impressive thriller offering, and I really can’t wait to see what they have in store for us next. Despite working with inherently restrictive budgets, the filmmakers clearly both have an eye for natural stylistic flourishes, razor-sharp scripting, against-type casting – and characterisation – and unpredictable plotting. Not to mention the stunning soundtrack which I guarantee you'll be itching to pick up as soon as you finish watching the movie.
The Guest may not ever be the iconic masterpiece that Drive has swiftly become, but it’s also far more accessible than anything Refn has produced – and infinitely more satisfying than his elusive Only God Forgives – and will hopefully be heralded as one of the great gems of 2014. It's a sleeper surprise which gives even heavy-hitters like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Edge of Tomorrow, and the surprise wonders like Snowpiercer and Her, a run for their money as one of the best movies of the year.
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