THE GUEST (2014)
Director: Adam Wingard
Cast: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser, Lance Reddick, Tabatha Shaun, Chase Williamson
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality)
Running Time: 1:39
Release Date: 9/17/14 (limited); 10/10/14 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 16, 2014
David (Dan Stevens) arrives at the house and tells the woman that he knew her son. He served in the same unit. He was there in Afghanistan when her son was killed in combat, and he has a message from the son to his family. It's a simple message but one that causes Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelly), the mother, to retreat the laundry room to weep. It would be rude, we suppose she believes, to show her emotions in front of a complete stranger, and besides, such grief is a private matter.
The notion of decorum is central to The Guest. It's partly the reason that almost no one in the family questions the story of this stranger who just showed up at their door one morning, and it's also the reason that he stays as long as he does without any complaint. He is a guest in their home and, even though they don't actually know him, a friend of the family. Of course David can stay as long as he needs to, and he can take up temporary residence in the room of their dead son. It's what the son would have wanted. Maybe it's also a little like having him back.
That concept of decorum is also why we suspect David almost from the start. Perhaps it's simply a result of the age in which we live, but as soon as he starts up with "Yes, ma'am" and "No, sir" and "Please" and "Thank you," we're pretty sure that David is up to something. Yes, director Adam Wingard establishes a nagging specter of doubt with the film's opening scene, in which we see the back of a man hauling a knapsack as he runs down a gravel road. After that image, the title appears with the smash of a dissonant chord on a synthesizer. David first materializes at the house with his back to the door, just so we notice the knapsack and make a connection to the startle of the musical explosion on the soundtrack.
Beyond that, though, there is simply something foreign about David's robotic politeness. Add to it that Stevens has the blonde hair, blue eyes, and matinee-star features of the quintessential "All-American Boy," and David comes across as an alien entity. Stevens plays the role as the guy about whom, while having dinner at his girlfriend's house and stepping away from the table to clear the dishes, a young woman's mother couldn't help but note, "Well, now, that's a nice young man" (before adding in a whisper, "and so handsome, too").
Stevens is incredibly effective in a role that an actor could easily miscalculate. He's charming, but there's something deviously plotting in his eyes and tone. He gives off an air of danger, but when he does, it's not because he turns psychotic or angry. He's simply drops the veil of courtesy, leaving nothing on his face but a hollow look and ditching the grin in his voice for a flatter delivery. Even when David is busy engaging in all kinds of brutal violence, there's still a bit of the old charm in him.
When David arrives at the Peterson house, he meets the rest of the family. Laura's husband Spencer (Leland Orser) is frustrated at his job and often starts a conversation by stating that he's going to have a drink. Their son Luke (Brendan Meyer) is the victim of bullies at school, and it's starting to get to him. Their daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) works as a waitress, trying to save money to go to college. Only she seems to wonder about David's interest in the family, although some of that suspicion disappears when he compliments her taste in music and steps out of steam-filled bathroom while wearing only a towel.
He's something of a savior to all of them. He gives Laura someone like a son. He gives Spencer a drinking buddy and helps him with his problems at work. He teaches Luke's bullies a few lessons in treating people with decency (How he gets them to confront him—buying their girlfriends drinks and ordering "girly" beverages for them—is quite funny, as is his more "diplomatic" way of intimidating the school principal). He removes Anna's pot-smoking, drug-dealing loser of a boyfriend Zeke (Chase Williamson), who very well might end up preventing her from living up to her potential, from the equation of the young woman's life.
Everything he does is for the good of the family. It's just that the ways he goes about doing that are the ways of a sociopathic, homicidal maniac. It's that juxtaposition, complemented by Stevens' smartly unassuming performance, that screenwriter Simon Barrett mines for the film's ample humor.
The story gets a little too busy with the introduction of a privatized paramilitary group with shady dealings and a leader (Lance Reddick) who barks orders like, "Assemble a team," and, "Get me on the next flight." The subplot serves as a logical explanation for David's history and something about his motives, but it really just functions as a way to bring the whole affair to a predictable showdown between good and evil. A lot of what happens in the film is undeniably familiar, but Barrett plays with that familiarity for laughs. The climax, though, doles out the customary clichés—a sudden increase in the body count, a confined space, an unstoppable killer, etc.—as a means to reach a tidy end.
The shift is relatively minor at face value, but it also removes the guilty pleasure of feeling morally conflicted about the film's anti-hero. There's still plenty of that in The Guest, and it's more than enough.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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