Director Adam Wingard follows up his 2012 home invasion hit You’re Next with The Guest, another devilishly entertaining thriller that wears its nostalgic horror influences on its sleeve. The titular role is filled by Dan Stevens, most notable for his work on the BBC series Downton Abbey. He plays David Collins, a former soldier who visits the grieving family of his recently fallen colleague Caleb Peterson. When he unexpectedly arrives at their doorstep, he tells of a promise that he made to Caleb about watching over the family and is subsequently welcomed with open arms.
During his residency, he begins to subtly influence the day-to-day affairs of Caleb’s brother and sister Luke and Anna, played by Brendan Meyer and Maika Monroe. Whether it’s teaching Luke how to deal with bullies at school or passing Anna shirtless in the hall post-shower, David cool and confident demeanor hints at something sinister under the surface. When Anna begins to probe into David’s shrouded past, David’s charismatic veneer begins to erode and he is forced to defend himself by any means necessary.
Dan Stevens is really a marvel in this movie. He somehow channels both the All-American altruism of Steve Rogers from Captain America and the looming, unwavering drive of Michael Myers from Halloween, sometimes even in the same scene. It’s a subtle performance, one where a certain smile or look in the eye can set the trajectory of a scene. The slow reveal of the nature of David’s past creates a tense atmosphere where Stevens is given unrelenting command of the screen at all times.
Beyond Stevens’ performance, The Guest is largely style over substance. A mixtape that Anna makes for David serves as the film’s musical backdrop, which features the type of synthed-out arpeggiated electro-pop that wouldn’t feel out of place in a 1980s slasher flick. Shot in New Mexico, the film also flirts with Western templates as well, especially during a parlay scene with Stevens and a nearly unrecognizable Ethan Embry. There’s also a tongue-in-cheek campiness throughout that makes it work effective as a dark comedy.
Wingard is clearly a student of Tarantino-style pastiche and is able to blend these elements cohesively. My chief complaints with the movie come down to the third act, which features two large set pieces that (forgive me) tend to overstay their welcome. Save for a memorably funny line reading at its conclusion, it’s as if The Guest forgets how to have fun once the plot wheels start to come into motion. Still, there’s more than enough here to recommend, especially during a fall movie season that’s been light on old-fashioned thrills.
Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are together again and it’s a beautiful thing. The Skeleton Twins reunites the Saturday Night Live alums after the success of their roles in the 2009’s Adventureland, but while that film relegates them to husband-wife comic relief, Twins aims for something richer and more meaningful. Here they play estranged siblings Milo and Maggie, who are brought back into each other’s lives by their near-simultaneous suicide attempts. During their first meeting together in 10 years, they share the type of jaded banter that you would except from long lost friends but their past bonds soon come to light when Maggie asks Milo to move in with her to recover.
We then meet Maggie’s adoring but oblivious husband Lance, played hilariously by Luke Wilson. He’s the kind of guy who uses the word “amigo” liberally and treats the world as a mountain to be climbed but Wilson finds a way of somehow grounding this character and making him believable as Maggie’s spouse. Ty Burrell is also strong as Rich, a teacher from Milo’s past with whom he tries reconnect. Those expecting Phil Dunphy-esque pratfalls may be disappointed to find a much more subdued and tortured performance.
Despite these characters, Hader and Wiig really are the reason to see this movie. The exceptional chemistry between them allows not only for one liners and dry sarcasm but also moments of real tension and poignancy. Maggie and Milo clearly have plenty of issues to work out, both in the present and the past. Like true brothers and sisters, they know just how to find each other’s triggers for humor and pain alike. The best example of this is the climatic bonding scene, which finds an upset Maggie reluctantly joining in on Milo’s grandiose lip-sync of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”
Writer-director Craig Johnson, who co-wrote the script with Mark Heyman, does indulge indie comedy clichés from time to time but also does a commendable job of balancing black comedy with penetrating family drama. He’s wise not to over-direct his actors, especially in scenes of confrontation that really ring true. While the film goes to the well once too often with water imagery, it also has a muted visual style that suits the material nicely. The fall setting also allows for a well-timed Halloween party that contributes to the primary theme of nostalgia.
The film’s title is referenced in dialogue-free flashbacks of the twins spending time with their father as children, in particular a scene in which they’re gifted a set of matching skeleton figures. This fits in well with the Halloween theme but also hints at the theme of death that permeates the film. There’s a sense of unmitigated sorrow within both Milo and Maggie that somehow both separates and solidifies them. Despite this sadness, The Skeleton Twins is able to inject plenty of well-judged humor to create a bittersweet and memorable family affair.
David Fincher’s masterpiece Gone Girl has a lot going on and more importantly, plenty to discuss afterwards. First time screenwriter Gillian Flynn adapts her best-selling novel with all of its ferocity firmly in tact. Over a extremely well paced two and a half hours, the film succeeds as a keeps-you-guessing mystery, a disturbing commentary on intimate relationships and a darkly humorous look at modern media sensationalism.
Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, a New York writer who meets cute with Rosamund Pike’s Amy in an extended early flashback and they share moments that lead them to courtship and eventually marriage. Things gradually begin to sour and on the morning of their fifth-year anniversary, Amy disappears and suspicions from the police and the public surround Nick in the ensuing days. During the investigation, he is supported by his sister Margo, played by Carrie Coon, and tested by two local detectives, played by Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit.
And oh, how much more I wish I could discuss. The film’s marketing team did well to conceal the central plot points and I applaud their efforts for a level of restraint that is often uncommon among modern film promoters. Even though I would count its “She” trailer as one of the year’s best, I can’t say it was necessary to sell the movie to me personally. I’m still waiting for the day when a feature film helmed by a director of Fincher’s caliber is released without a trailer or TV spot before it. But I digress.
As per usual for Fincher, this film is tremendous from a technical level as well. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross continue their successful relationship as music collaborators to produce yet another unnerving score. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth returns as well with his appealing visual style that also hints at layers of rot right under the surface. The casting also has some inspired choices, including Neil Patrick Harris as one of Amy’s former lovers and Tyler Perry, who brings humor and perspective to the role of Nick’s attorney (yes, I can officially say that I’ve now laughed at a Tyler Perry movie).
Above all, Gone Girl is a first-rate psychological thriller, not just in terms of its precise plotting but its engagement with the characters’ inner thoughts. It’s a revolving door with motivations and morality constantly pushing and pulling during the story’s progression. We know these people are loathsome in various ways but we can’t look away. A gorgeously framed opening shot along with a loaded voiceover passage at once sets up both the film’s emotional brutality and enigmatic beauty. This moment, which is reprised later in the film with elegant symmetry, is a stunning point of introspection that has stayed with me in the hours and days since my first viewing.
Hey everyone, thanks for coming to my movie review blog Awake in the Dark. You may be thinking: “why does the world need another blog, especially one dedicated to movie reviews?” The answer is it doesn’t.
This is purely a space where my thoughts on current movies can be categorized and perused at your leisure. I can’t promise that they will be especially well written but I can promise that they will be short (500 words or less) and that I will put my best into it.
I currently reside in Fort Wayne and while there are many qualities of this town that I have come to love, film availability is not near the top of that list. However, I will do my best to seek out both movies that I care about and movies that are relevant to the movie industry in general.
I’m hoping to start on a one review a week basis and seeing where to take things from there. We’re entering what should be a fruitful few months for film and I hope to capitalize on it. Once again, thanks for visiting and thanks for supporting the movies.