Some filmmakers hit the ground running, blowing minds with their debut features. Others take a little while to hit their stride. Adam Wingard is one such director.
Wingard showed real promise with his first two features, Home Sick and Pop Skull, both penned by E.L. Katz, who would go on to direct the brilliant Cheap Thrills. However, it wasn't until he teamed up with writer Simon Barrett (who also showed early promise with his screenplay for the underrated Civil War haunter Dead Birds) that it became apparent that Wingard was an emerging talent not to be ignored.
You're Next took everyone by surprise, with its sharp script, overturning of genre conventions and overtly feminist tone. That said, I didn't totally connect with it in the way that a lot of other people seemed to. Don't get me wrong, I liked it a lot and it was obviously a huge step forward for both Wingard and Barrett, but there was still something lacking, something not-quite developed about it that prevented it from being truly great. Would these two obviously talented and spirited filmmakers ever realise their potential, or was You're Next to be their apex?
With The Guest, Wingard and Barrett have demolished any lingering doubts that I may have had, delivering on all that hitherto hinted-at promise in spectacular fashion. The Guest is an electrically tense, spring-loaded grenade of a movie that hit my senses like napalm, utterly transfixing me from first frame to last. It's a masterpiece.
Dan Stevens' tour de force performance as David, a returned Iraq war vet who politely imposes himself on the grieving family of a fallen comrade, has to be seen to be believed. There's a highly regimented precision to his every action and line delivery that's fascinating to watch. Complimenting this is an alpha-male physicality that's at once menacingly dangerous and powerfully sexual. Think Robert Patrick in Terminator 2, but with piercing blue eyes and a completely magnetic charm. Stevens' performance and screen presence here is nothing short of riveting.
The tone and atmosphere of this film is extremely cool too. The production design feels simultaneously retro and yet somehow ultra modern, alternating between colour drenched neon, everyday suburban settings and a slickly futuristic corporate/military aesthetic. The camera work reflects the hyper-controlled, chilly nature of the titular character in the way it coldly frames its subjects and slowly prowls around the film's settings. The soundtrack (which is frequently and loudly at the fore of the sound design) is also a hybrid of retro and futurism, featuring a winning mix of new and old electronic and goth tracks from the likes of Sisters of Mercy, Gatekeeper, D.A.F. and an original score by Zombi's Steve Moore.
As with You're Next, one of The Guest's greatest assets is its sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant subversion of genre conventions. On the surface its story is very simple, and I kept thinking I knew exactly where it was going, only to be surprised at the direction it took instead. Not in the sense of big twists or surprises, but just in the small details of how the story unfolds. That same care and attention to writing and direction is evident in the way that the plot builds, clearly calculated to ratchet the tension up slowly, scene by scene, so that the climax makes for an absolutely killer payoff.
If you're like me, The Guest is a movie that you've wanted for years. Without giving too much away, Wingard's film is a fist pumping homage to The Terminator in the same unconventional way that 28 Days Later was to Dawn of the Dead (the difference being that The Guest sticks the landing where 28 Days Later fumbled its climax). Both movies smartly build on their influences to create something new and exciting, not just nostalgic fan service. I can't recommend this one highly enough.