On a recent episode of his podcast comedian Dana Gould made an interesting point about how cinema has evolved over the last few decades. He started out by pointing out that, yes, the infamous scene in Pink Flamingos where Divine eats dog poop is shocking, but it's also the movie's pay off; that film is about a battle between lunatics for the title of "filthiest person alive", and the whole story was building to that one gag. In contrast, a modern gross out comedy might make an off handed joke about something that tasteless before the opening credits roll. For example, you could re-edit any of the Jackass movies so that their feces scenes - (and yes, every Jackass movie does have a feces scene) - took place at the beginning, middle or end of the movie and it wouldn't matter at all. (For the record, all their feces scenes take place in the middle.)
Gould wasn't necessarily complaining about the change - after all, it's pretty hard to try to claim the moral high ground when your zero marker involves competitive dog poop consumption. No, he was just pointing out that as our culture keeps progressing we want things to go farther faster. Now, sometimes that can be a bad thing, but other times its actually kind of nice.
Take for example the Guest, a 2014 thriller about a mysterious stranger that shows up on a suburban family's doorsteps claiming to be an army buddy of their recently deceased son. It's obvious from the get go that "David" isn't telling them something - he seems a little shifty, plus we all know there's no movie if he's just a nice young lad whose only purpose in the story is to help them run errands. However, while an older movie might have dragged its feet on revealing what we in the audience has already guessed, The Guest has "David" display his true colors before the first act is over.
Honestly, it's a refreshing choice. During the first fifteen minutes of the movie I was only halfway paying attention, since I assumed it was going to methodically build tension by slowly escalating how nuts "David" was - which meant that the movie wasn't going to get good till the back half. However, by staging it's reveal so early, the Guest not only ripped the band aid off quickly, thus avoiding the protracted feeling that these movies often have, but it also signaled that it wasn't going to be predictable. Indeed, once "David's" instability was on the table, the movie moved in a much different way than I originally expected.
Of course, that limits my ability to discuss the movie in great depth because this is a movie where spoilers might legitimately spoil the fun, but I can say this: the movie plays with the mysterious stranger genre in a way that I thought were interesting; the movie's matter of fact tone tone serves the story well; the soundtrack was cool; and it was a really smart decision to stage the inevitable showdown at a Halloween themed high school dance, because it gave them liberty to use moody lighting without moving too far away from the mostly domestic look of the movie.
The Guest is a film that threads the needle well: it speeds up an old formula enough to make it interesting without being in such a hurry that it seems incoherent. It's the sort of rewarding discovery that makes you think that the movies might be able to successfully adapt to our country's increasingly short attention span without selling out what has always made cinema so great. I mean, sure the kids no longer have enough patience to sit through an entire movie to get to a few murders - but that doesn't mean that Hollywood's lost it's ability to tell a story about murders in a compelling way!
(For the record, I generally try to tie my conclusion back to the opening, so if you want this review to end in a tidy and satisfying manner, feel free to replace "murder" with "poop eating" in that last sentence - it totally works. I just don't want to do it for you because dignity and stuff. I'm trying to keep it classy over here, you know?)