If you had told me that Matthew Crawley could carry a thriller movie, I’d have raised an eyebrow; probably two, because my eyebrows are no more obedient to my will than anything else in the world. If you’d told me the movie would go into free fall whenever he wasn’t on screen, I’d have bought the Brooklyn Bridge off you just to keep both feet firmly anchored in unreality.
The Guest is a great little movie, and it owes it all to Dan Stevens, the most enjoyably amiable psycho to show up at the movies in ages. It loses its way a bit at the end; no matter how much you’re riffing off 1980s influences, it’s never a great idea to set your climactic stalk-out in a funfair maze. But the first two thirds are rock solid; Stevens is note perfect in his switches from charm to menace and there’s not a wasted moment. Everything is there for a reason; every little line and incident tells you a little bit more about what’s driving the characters.
It’s plain from the moment Stevens shows up that things are going to go terribly wrong; the tension is how they’re going to go wrong, and just why. It’s Halloween, and everywhere we look, there’s pumpkins and scarecrows; is David some kind of ghost, back to wreak havoc in his army buddy’s old town?
Well, he’s definitely going to wreak havoc. Lots of it. And it’s horribly enjoyable. I grumbled last year about Luc Besson’s The Family, which somehow muffed the whole notion of a bunch of psychos handing out well deserved smackings to the smug population of a small French town. The Guest gets it just right. Dan Stevens powers his way through a succession of annoyances and no matter how undeserving they are of the havoc, he’s somehow hilarious and awesome. He is not the good guy, and yet it’s impossible not to root for him, no matter how many times the camera stays on his smile for just long enough for it fade into something much more unsettling.
It wears its 80s influences on its sleeve; makes them part of the action even, right from the hints of 1980s slasher movies in the choice of font for the title to the way the cast gets trimmed to a final girl. And the way it gets in a sequel hook. Just as I despaired that we’d see a chance of The Guest 2; the Enguestening, Dan limps back into view to a “what the fuck?” from the final girl echoed silently by the whole audience. Did the director just roll out balls that cosmically oversized. Why, yes, yes he did. And I’m fine with that. I’d happily watch Stevens do it all over again with another small town family; he’s just that charming.
But first, I think he should play Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson. When he was doing his “aw shucks, ma’am, I don’t want to be no trouble to you all” soldier boy, he had a wonderful wholesome rightness to him, with just the hint of some deeper damage; when I wasn’t laughing out loud at the latest atrocity, I was thinking “Yeah, Quinn Colson. You’d be perfect."
Lady Mary doesn’t know what she’s missing.