As time has gone on, I've found myself appreciating films that are able to structure themselves around a simple premise, but then use that framework to their advantage by crafting engaging characters and uniquely exciting ways to execute their story. The Guest exemplifies this kind of experience, but adds to the mix by being insanely fun, comically disturbing, and unforgiving in its weirdness. It doesn't hurt that the movie is firmly aware of its own cinematic nature, and plays to that without being obnoxiously meta. The Guest is a film for those of us who are fetishistic devotees of genre cinema, and doesn't care if anyone else gets lost along the way.
The biggest era The Guest draws from is genre films of the 1980's, and it lavishes oodles of adoration upon the Reagan movie years. However, this isn't an attempt at mimicry. The Guest isn't trying to imitate an '80s movie; it assumes you're knowledge of a number of films and their "rules" and plays around with them. It's kind of astounding how brazen the film is with its appropriation of certain familiar ideas, and then it's wonderful disregard with how the audience expects such a concept to play out. In a lesser movie, this would come off as pretentious. The Guest easily avoids such issues by heaping on tons of laughs and excitement, which enhances the subversion going on beneath the surface.
An enormous amount of that credit belongs to leading man Dan Stevens, who plays the mysterious "David" with equal parts charm and menace. Prepare to see his name pop up on every fancasting list ever, because he is overflowing with charisma and true acting talent. Considering where the story takes "David", it's almost impossible to ever despise the character because Stevens is just that damn great. His ability to remain likable as his darker nature is revealed is a testament to his skill. Dan Stevens was never on my radar before, but now I am going to be joining in on all those fancasting posts because the guy more than deserves it.
To be fair, the script by Simon Barrett and direction by Adam Wingard are equally impressive. This is a huge step up from the very enjoyable You're Next, and manages to take the playful tone of that film and transplant it onto a story that does it a lot more favors. There's much more affection present in this film, even if it is still infused with a sinister glee. The amalgamation of action, sci-fi, horror, suspense, comedy and even teen genres exudes a love that only die-hard cinephiles can relate to.
And that's where The Guest is almost antagonistically drawing a line in the sand. I completely understand why the film didn't get a wide release, and that's actually a really good thing. This is a film that is going to be misunderstood by plenty of casual moviegoers, and a wide release would have hurt the film's perception. There's also the fact that The Guest seems to be a love letter to fantasy violence (and in a particular case, even real violence), and I don't see that going over well in an overly PC climate (now our cinematic violence is only passable in big budget live action cartoons).
An aspect of the film that is worth being widespread is the soundtrack. This is the most listenable selection of tunes I've come across since Drive. It gels with the tone and mood of the film so well that it's going to be impossible for me to separate the two in my mind.
For all of the clever sabotage it performs on your expectations, The Guest boils down to just being old-fashioned fun. It hones in on its lead character and never lets up, giving you plenty to enjoy. I won't be pompous and say it's the best film of the year, but I'd be lying if I didn't say it's my favorite.