One moment at the beginning of Adam Wingard’s The Guest captures the forte of the film very well. Anna Peterson (Maika Monroe) is questioned on David, the titular visitor to her family abode. She tersely replies, ‘I said he seemed nice, I didn’t say I liked him’. It is on this distinction between charm and genuine good character that the intrigue plays out. Dan Stevens, in a first major role since leaving Downton Abbey, gives a performance reminiscent of Anthony Perkins in Psycho, piercing blue eyes and pure good looks up front but trouble bubbling not too far beneath.
Perkins felt he became typecast after playing Norman Bates; Stevens could hardly have chosen a more apt project to avoid such a fate & shake off the coat and tails of the late, great Matthew Crawley. He brings great verve to David Collins, a soldier discharged from Afghanistan who arrives unannounced at the Petersons’ house bearing the last wishes of his colleague, their deceased son. The first half of the film exists quite wonderfully in the gaps of human interaction created by this uncomfortable premise. Dazzled by David’s looks and demeanour, no-one pushes the questions of why he is there, how long he will stay or what he has done/will do. Instead they fill the silence with performative hospitality, constantly offering their new companion drinks & eschewing scrutiny as he solves each of their personal issues in turn.
The plot unfolds in the vast desert settings that have proven so popular for vigilante stories in recent years. Stevens often appears from nowhere, shimmering like a mirage; he is the guest not just to the family but to almost every scene in the film. His performance is a delight, & I employ such a positive term deliberately. There is a constant undercurrent of threat, occasional violence and even the odd nod to horror (the title font reminded me of The Exorcist), but all this is combined with the same kitschy fun present in Wingard & writer Simon Barrett’s previous collaboration, 2011’s siege-horror You’re Next. Just as then, the heavy use of synths is justified, turning the simplest gesture into a threat of brutality and ensuring the intensity never wavers. The two films also consider the act of letting people into our lives, in both a physical and emotional sense. It is especially pleasing to see filmmakers creating thrillers with greater depth than the slew of gore-fests that have polluted the industry in the last decade.
The sexing-up of the hunky Stevens is commendable, and although the film sadly fails the Bechdel Test, the characters we do get are well-written and engaging. Supporting the central role are strong turns from Monroe as the suspicious daughter and especially Lance Reddick as a CID agent, doing the opposite of Stevens in reversing his creepy Matthew Abbadon from Lost. As can happen with such a tension-heavy setup, the final act feels like letting loose a rabid dog, but it does retain its sense of fun to the last note. It is worth seeing for Stevens alone, but once there you will discover there is much to welcome in The Guest as a whole.
P.S. If that is not enough for you, go see The Guest to validate this clip, where British TV host Susanna Reid suggests Stevens has brought a whole new meaning to the term ‘service’-man…