Let the record show that if you recommend I watch something, it may take up to two months for me to get around to it (you should also know that if you lend me a book you might not get it back for up to six months, I know, worst possible person).
Earlier this year my friend Caponio recommended The Guest (2014) starring Dan Stevens. True story, a few weeks before that I was looking at Dan Stevens’ filmography to try and see what he’d been up to since leaving Downton Abbey to pursue other interests and randomly joked about The Guest out of all of them. I don’t hate Dan Stevens, I just have a strong feelings of resentment for how things went down on Downton Abbey.
Anyway, now that the Oscars have passed I have time for some action thrillers, and I’ll be honest I enjoyed The Guest featuring ‘Merican Dan Stevens as an unnerving veteran come to pay respects to the family of a fallen friend more than I expected.
The Guest opens with a doorbell ringing in the home of a zoned out woman named Mrs. Peterson (Sheila Kelley). A man named David introduces himself as a friend of her late son Caleb, who was killed in action in Afghanistan. He tells Mrs. Peterson that he’s there fulfilling Caleb’s dying wish to check in on them. She’s further devastated but insists he stay anyway, meet the family, and potentially help them move forward.
Obviously these people are way too willing to let David hang around as they literally know nothing about him and he doesn’t look anywhere near normal or well adjusted but neither are they. The only suspicious, and apparently only smart one, is the daughter Anna (Maika Monroe). The son Luke (Brendan Meyer), and the father Spencer (Leland Orser), are apprehensive but all it takes is a few stories over a couple of days and he’s in.
David’s not quite right vibe drives the movie further and further down the rabbit hole. As he gets closer to each member of the family he also stocks up on weapons for an unknown reason. Soldiers just like weapons he says dismissively at one point.
Further suspicious of David, Anna finally decides to do some research only to find out that David supposedly died a week ago, that he’s more or less on the loose, and all hell breaks loose from there.
The Guest is a sneaky good thriller. A mostly unknown cast means an unassuming viewer and the little twists along the way make for a solid payoff. A thriller with a bigger budget and bigger actors means expectations can easily outweigh the product but The Guest gets it just right.
Coincidentally, The Guest and A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014), another thriller starring Dan Stevens, were released in the same month (same week, actually) last year. Though this one’s lead by Keep Getting Them Thriller Movie Checks Hall of Famer, Liam Neeson.
Confession time: I haven’t seen Taken 1 (2008), 2 (2012), or 3 (2014), or Non-Stop (2014), but I still felt like I knew what I was going to get from Neeson. The key difference here, presumably, is that Neeson almost exclusively walks around in A Walk Among the Tombstones as if he signed on principally to take it easy this time.
At the same time, maybe it’s because I haven’t seen Neeson’s other more derided thrillers that I wasn’t annoyed the by relative predictability of the murder Private Detective Matthew Scudder is hired to investigate and the final battle ends up being fairly entertaining — as is A Walk Among the Tombstones as a whole. Then again, I could be unfairly dismissing the entire Taken series and the give-the-people-what-they-want approach to thrillers as a whole. But probably not.
Scudder is hired to investigate the murder of the wife of noted drug trafficker, Kenny Kristo, played by Dan Stevens. Stevens is creepier, well, greasier here thanks to the slick dark hair with matching mustache and soul patch as opposed to The Guest where he’s just more mysterious. In both it’s evident that young Matthew Crawley is long gone while Lady Mary is just now getting over it.
A neat thing about A Walk Among the Tombstones is the nod to Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and other noir detective tropes. In fact it plays like a classic detective story with a finish fit for today’s thriller. It rains a lot and rains really hard a la Se7en (1995) (but not exclusively a la Se7en). Scudder is a damaged loaner but a good guy who gets mixed up with some bad people, and the mystery is so messy that it takes some help from others and even a little trickery to get the job done.
Scudder finds himself no longer a member of the force and in the shady private detective business due to a shootout gone bad eight years prior, but we don’t know what affected him to the point of alcohol abuse until the end of the movie. Still, Scudder pieces it all together well enough thanks to the help of a young black kid named TJ (actor/rapper Astro) who shows him how to use the internet and becomes his sidekick.
For most of the movie the villain is unseen and particularly sadistic. And finding him (them) means Scudder goes around asking a lot of questions of drug traffickers (targeted for maximum kidnapping profits) and witnesses around places their ladies were abducted. These oddly accurate accounts are seamlessly integrated with stylish flashbacks that still leave the perpetrators slightly obscured.
Just as Scudder begins to figure them out, things escalate rather quickly when the kidnappers take the 14 year old daughter of yet another drug trafficker (Liam Neeson won’t stand for that, in any movie). From there things really get sideways (yes, among some tombstones) and everybody’s plans and go to moves go out the window.
Dan Stevens doesn’t make it to the very end as I predicted he wouldn’t, but I’m down for him appearing in more movies as the weird, mysterious, occasionally sleazy co-lead.