Tuesday, August 26, 2014

'The Guest' (2014) directed by Adam Wingard

The core premise of Adam Wingard's The Guest is a rumination on what it would be like if Captain America was a total dick.  The answer is a bundle of silliness and over-the-top gore wrapped in a slick coating of beautiful synth music.  After the excellent You're Next and the V/H/S films Wingard is carving out a space for himself as the heir to John Carpenter's crown.  Like Carpenter's best, these films mischievously screw with audience expectations and take an unashamed thrill in the dishing out of outrageous death.

Taking a bit of a detour from Downton Abbey, Dan Stevens plays David, a US veteran who turns up on a bereaved family's doorstep.  He claims to have been best friends with their dead son, and gradually wins their respect and admiration - moving in as the titular guest. We quickly sense that not everything is right with David.  For one he's the smuggest arsehole you could ever hope to meet and for another he seems to solve every problem with brutal head smashing .  

Stevens deploys a smirk so powerful it could sink battleships, all the while behaving like an enormous cock to everyone around him.  Paradoxically he's such a colossal prick that we end up sort of respecting him for it.  After all, he's the one providing the entirety of the entertainment in the film and the feckless family that takes him probably have it coming. Steven's is pretty magnificent here, clearly relishing playing an unhinged nutter after so long trapped in buttoned down period drama garbage like Summer in February.

Our noble men in uniform turn out be complete monsters.  Didn't see that coming.
Quickly, similarities to Captain America mount up.  Everything from David's hairstyle to the costuming to his grotesquely muscled build to the nice-guy normality echoes Chris Evans' performance in the Marvel movies.  By the time Lance Reddick is running around as a Special Operations Unit commander, wearing a black, knee-length leather coat (practically in Nick Fury cosplay) it's pretty clear what they're going for.  If Marvel's Captain America is how the USA wishes it was, then The Guest presents the awful reality of a modern American Supersoldier.

He kills indiscriminately, exploits the weak and blows up buildings at a whim - with a bashful aw shucks smile on his lips and a baby-blue eyes stare.  Even as he goes berserk and takes out practically the entire cast we still find it hard to dislike David - but then a charismatic sociopath is always fun to watch.  

Bubbling under this are a few playful potshots at Refn's Drive.  I loved Drive, but there's a slight hypocrisy that The Guest picks up on.  We're supposed to condemn the violence in Drive as ugly and horrifying - the film criticising us for finding Ryan Gosling's lonely, emotionally stunted antihero attractive while couching him in the coolest of cool aesthetics.  The Guest shrugs its shoulders and says "So what? Blood and guts are awesome."  Both films share a exploitation, B-movie vibe, both share a predilection for bathing the frame in primary coloured light and both revel in faux-1980s synths - but they fork drastically in one crucial regard.  Drive is trying to be more than exploitation, The Guest is a B-movie and proud of it.

And boy do I love a good B-movie. I had a stupid grin plastered over my face as the plot lurched in increasingly bizarre directions.  By the time the characters are trapped in a 'Halloween Maze', full of fake zombies, grim reapers and sinister clowns I was in hog's head.  I figured there was no place other than down from that high - then we enter an Enter the Dragonesque hall of mirrors.  Right then and there Adam Wingard entered my directorial hall of heroes.

Dear Hollywood. More mirror mazes in films pls.
The cherry on top of this scrumptious cake is the outstanding score and soundtrack.  I'm going to hazard a guess that Wingard played and loved Hotline Miami, a brutally violent, retro-styled 2D indie videogame.  He's poached the best of the artists from its synth-drenched soundtrack - from F.O.O.L. to the mighty Perturbator.  No opportunity is passed up to cue up the synths by characters or director - the climax of the film even begins with our antihero/villain in a DJ booth cueing up a supercool track to finish the film with (on a dry-iced, disco-lit dancefloor).

What's particularly wonderful about The Guest is that it avoids so many of the pitfalls films fall into when trying to emulate the 1980s trash film aesthetic.  Many directors trying to pull this kind of thing off throw in a few winks and nods, reassuring the audience that the film secretly knows that it's rubbish.  Alternatively they use it as an excuse to turn out a substandard product, able to fall back on a defence that "it's supposed to be crap!". But Wingard's palpable love for his cinematic influences shines brightly: he doesn't look down on trash, he tries his best to live up to it.  

I honestly wasn't expecting to enjoy The Guest as much as I did but it had me hooked from frame one.  Though this isn't a big, important movie it's quietly and effectively satirical in dissecting the modern blockbuster hero: you can examine everyone from Jason Bourne, to Craig's James Bond, to Gosling's Driver and, most obviously, Chris Evans' Captain America through the prism of The Guest.  I thoroughly enjoyed every single second of this movie - and if we're keyed into the same sensibilities, so will you.


The Guest opens in the UK on 5th September

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