Directed by Adam Wingard
Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Lance Reddick
Bafflingly, The Guest didn’t get a cinematic release in Australia. It’s from the crew who made the astonishingly good survival horror flick, You’re Next, and it seems to have struck a chord with critics, but it’s flown under the radar here. You have to be the kind of person who goes out of their way to track down obscure indie flicks for it to have registered. Luckily, I am that kind of person, and I’m here to tell you get your hands on a copy of The Guest: it’s really, really good.
Like You’re Next, The Guest takes an existing subgenre and twists it – in this case it’s the “stranger comes to town” breed of action thriller. The most obvious model is Shane, but there have been plenty of similar movies, wherein a capable, hyper-masculine visitor sets things a-right for a troubled family or community, along the way charming the womenfolk and casually emasculating the men. Screenwriter Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard subvert the this old sawhorse by explicitly making the nominal hero figure an out and out psycho.
That’s not a spoiler, by the way – so much of the fun here comes from wondering when the grieving Peterson family are going realise they have a cuckoo in their nest. When the polite-to-a-fault former soldier David (Dan Stevens) fronts up on the doorstep of the grieving Peterson family, he tells them he served with their now-dead son, Caleb, and promised to visit them when he mustered out. Staying in Caleb’s old room, he quickly ingratiates himself – he’s a surrogate son to parents Spencer (Leland Orser) and Laura (Sheila Kelly), a protective mentor figure to alienated emo teen, Luke (Brendan Meyer). It’s oldest child Anna (Maika Monroe) who has the most complex reaction to David; she finds him primally attractive, but also discerns that there’s something wrong with him, and her suspicions lead her to dig into his background.
Anna’s right of course – David is a coiled-spring killer, and even if her investigations didn’t uncover holes in his backstory, then Dan Stevens’ measured, knowing turn leaves the audience in no doubt that there is something seriously wrong with this guy. Stevens’ David is always smiling, always polite, but there’s nothing behind his eyes – just a space where the soul ought to be. Even when he’s not hunting and killing gun dealers or teaching Spencer how to use a balisong knife, he just comes across as fundamentally fucked up. It’s a great performance and David as a character is skin-crawlingly unsettling; he’s like a rattlesnake walking around in a people suit, and something in the viewer’s mammal brain reacts accordingly.
The Petersons don’t notice this, of course, and the film’s tension lives in that gap between what the characters know and what we, as the audience know. There are times when you just about want to scream at the screen – can’t they see how dangerous this guy is? It’s actually funny, albeit blackly so, as we wonder how these people can be so blind to this incredibly lethal human machine in their midst.
Eventually, of course, they’re confronted with the truth – some of them very briefly as the body count spikes in the third act. A shadowy paramilitary team under the command of The Wire’s Lance Reddick rolls up to take David into custody, who reacts about as well as you’d expect a highly trained, mentally unstable super-commando to react. The film falters a bit here – the climax leans harder into the ’80s genre homage than the rest of the film and it’s a little jarring, considering how confident the preceding work is. The film also ends abruptly, with some fairly major threads left dangling. You’re Next did the same thing and although it’s not a deal-breaker in either case, this reticence to commit to a strong resolution is rampant in mumblegore circles – It Follows suffers similarly.
Nonetheless The Guest is the business. It’s a brisk, atmospheric, fun thriller that takes its rote premise and runs with it, relying on sheer craft to carry the day. Find a way to get it in front of your eyes soon – it’s a gem.