A lone stranger arrives at a quaint homestead, he just needs a place to stay and is willing to help out for room and board, but when threats to the family arise this lone stranger is revealed to be an avenging angel of badassery. If you’ve seen the classic western Shane, or let’s face it any one of countless other western, this is a very familiar trope, but what if that lone stranger turned out to be a murdering psychotic sociopath who is just as likely to bite the hand that feeds it as its enemies? This is the premise behind director Adam Wingard’s excellent 2014 horror/thriller.
The Peterson family are going through some tough times as their son Caleb has joined the ranks of the fallen in the war over in Afghanistan. Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley) is almost paralyzed by grief over the death of her son, and she is not getting much support from her alcoholic husband Spencer (Leland Orser). Their two kids Luke (Brendan Meyer) and Anna (Maika Monroe) both have problems of their own to deal with; Anna has a drug dealing boyfriend and Luke is mercilessly bullied at school. Enter David Collins (Dan Stevens), a recently released soldier who arrives at the Peterson home claiming to have been friends with Caleb, and who has arrived to fulfill the last wishes of his dead friend by delivering personal messages to the family.
David is the epitome of charm and politeness; he quickly works his magic on the whole family and is invited to stay for a few days, but almost immediately you’re going to start noticing some red flags as the story enfolds. You see David is very good with the ultra-violence. At first this is cause for the audience to almost burst out giggling with glee as David brings the beat down on the group of school bullies that had been harassing Luke, or when he slams an asshole ex-boyfriend’s head into the hall at the speed of a striking cobra. It’d be kind of like finding out your new best friend was Jason Bourne.
What puts us on edge is that the incredible speed at which David takes down his opponents is only matched by the cold brutality of the attacks. Sure, those football jocks had it coming for picking on poor Luke, but then when strange deaths start piling up Anna starts to wonder, “Just who is David?” A picture on the Peterson mantelpiece clearly shows that David was in Caleb’s unit, but when Anna calls the military to get some information on him she is told he is dead. Sadly Anna is the lone voice of reason as her parents and Luke are completely won over by David.
When the military, led by Major Caver (Lance Reddick), finally show up looking for David we are completely caught on the fence as to which side we should be on. We the audience both route for and are appalled by his actions in almost equal measure because we are hardwired to respect and enjoy seeing someone good at their job, when that job is kicking ass so much the better, but when David crosses the line he really crosses the line. This is a movie that has you laughing at the absurdity of the violence one minute then gasping at the horror of it the next.
This is an incredibly fun horror/thriller that almost defies categorization, which we can chock up to the excellent genre busting script by Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard’s sharp direction, and the amazing performance by Dan Stevens. Really the entire cast does fantastic work here. This film has the covert military organization and badass killing machine aspects of the Bourne Identity, David’s emotional detachment during his fights is very reminiscent of The Terminator, and the last act is straight out of a Slasher Film. So basically I’m saying this film has it all. If you don’t find it immensely fun and entertaining then you are probably missing the point. This is a must see movie.