D: Adam Wingard / 99m
Cast: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley, Lance Reddick, Chase Williamson, Joel David Moore, Ethan Embry, Tabatha Shaun
Shortly after the death of her son Caleb while he was in Afghanistan, Laura Peterson (Kelley) receives an unexpected visit from a young man who served with Caleb and has come to honour a promise he made. David (Stevens) is welcomed into the Peterson household and despite initially unsure reactions from dad Spencer (Orser), daughter Anna (Monroe) and younger son Luke (Meyer), he soon wins their trust.
But when strange incidents begin to happen around town – Spencer’s boss is killed in mysterious circumstances, Anna’s boyfriend is implicated in a murder – incidents that in some way benefit the Peterson family, Anna starts to wonder if David is everything that he says he is, even down to his having served with Caleb. While Anna’s suspicions grow, Luke overhears David talking to a plastic surgeon on the phone (though he doesn’t tell anyone). When Anna calls the military base that David said he was last stationed at before he was discharged, their response is to send an armed unit, led by Major Carver (Reddick) to apprehend him.
With David needing to move on sooner than he’d planned, it becomes clear that he has no intention of letting anyone he’s met in the last few days be left behind for the military (or anyone else) to talk to. He sets about killing the Peterson’s and anyone else he feels is a liability. With Carver in hot pursuit, David tracks Anna and Luke to their local high school, and an inevitable showdown.
After the less than sophisticated home invasion story depicted in You’re Next (2011), director Wingard and writer Simon Barrett turn their attention to a more subtle variation on the same theme, with a cuckoo in the nest approach that reaps dividends thanks to a more controlled script, and strong performances from Stevens, Monroe, Kelley et al.
Thanks to Barrett’s more credible set up, The Guest draws the viewer in, allaying any initial fears the audience may have that this will turn out to be as predictable as, say, The Stepfather (1987). But, while it’s a fair assumption to make – David is handsome, charming and polite, there are family tensions that mark out the Petersons as easily dividable – the way in which David’s more dubious undertakings are carried out have a disturbing frisson to them that obscures their obvious wrongdoing (and makes them partly acceptable for the audience). Laura’s need for secondary contact with her son via David is understandable, and her vulnerability is well played by Kelley; there’s a quiet desperation to her scenes with Stevens that is often more touching than expected.
Spencer is a man at a standstill, attempting to make sense of his life through railing at what he sees as its inequalities, and yet, when he learns of his boss’s demise, and the promotion it means for him, his sense of place is so disturbed he can’t fathom how to react. Orser (a much underrated actor) excels in what is an unsung role, and it’s great to see him in a movie where he’s not there to make up the numbers as in the Taken trilogy.
As their troubled offspring, Monroe and Meyer have larger roles but they’re a little too generic, with Anna’s doubtful behaviour and Luke’s need for an older brother substitute feeling more tired than dramatically necessary, and despite good performances from both, they can’t elevate their characters above the limitations set within the script.
With so much attention given to the Peterson family dynamic, it’s reassuring to find that David is much more complex than you might expect, and Stevens relishes the opportunity to take a trip to the dark side, making David attractive and dangerous at the same time, his military “training” having created a monster whose sense of morality is fleeting and impersonal. That he chooses to help the Petersons in the way that he does is never fully explained (and is one of the ways in which the movie often feels more contrived than it needs to be). Stevens is riveting as David, dispelling any memories of his role in TV’s Downton Abbey, and proving a superb choice in the title role, alternately charismatic and treacherous, and showing no contrition for his actions.
Beautifully filmed on location in New Mexico by Robby Baumgartner, The Guest benefits from a great cast and is smartly directed by Wingard who is improving with each movie he makes. The movie’s midpoint sees some pacing issues and the Eighties style slasher finale at Anna and Luke’s high school is a little out of place – and makes the viewer wonder just what the school’s budget was to have created such a Halloween inspired maze/dancefloor/entrance etc. And there’s a final shot that both echoes that Eighties conclusion and undermines it all at the same time. It’s an understandable move by Wingard and Barrett but a bad one nevertheless, and is the cinematic version of leaving a sour taste in the mouth.
Rating: 7/10 – its unexpectedly derivative ending aside, The Guest is a welcome addition to the psycho thriller genre; gripping for most of its running time, it features a terrific performance from Stevens and shows no problem in being seductively cruel throughout.