'The Guest' is a refreshing throwback and a clever riff on cinema's masculine mystique
The Guest Picturehouse
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenplay: Simon Barrett
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Sheila Kelley, Brendan Meyer, Leland Orser, Lance Reddick and Tabatha Shaun
Rated R / 1 hour, 39 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)
Like so many impostors, intruders and mysterious visitors before him, there is something mythological about the central figure in The Guest, the man who calls himself David Collins. He's more myth than man, really - an amalgam of male authority fantasies made fashionable in movies since time immemorial.
The film - directed by Adam Wingard and written by his longtime collaborator Simon Barrett - is a tongue-in-cheek appraisal of the cinematic masculine mystique, couched in the conventions of 1980s horror.
That mystique has manifested itself in a wide variety of alpha-male flavors, and David Collins is all of them. He is the charming, charismatic boy next door with the baby blue eyes and aw-shucks persona, complete with a slight Southern twang and its corresponding politeness. He is the man who knows how to handle a gun and isn't afraid to use it. Who women can confide in about their problems. Who men can relate to. Who teaches the bullied son to defend himself. Who can handle his liquor with no ill effects. Who can solve any problem and win any fistfight. Who can take control in the bedroom. Who can get away with - or out of - anything. Who is always the coolest, toughest, smartest person in the room.
This is the mythical male prototype. Lover, father, soldier, fighter, confidant, con man, leader, protector, fixer, killer, thief. He is smart, handsome, capable, decisive and, for all intents and purposes, indestructible. He is Tyler Durden. He is Tom Cruise.
Or in this case, he is Downton Abbey veteran Dan Stevens, relishing the role and turning in a magnetic, steely-eyed performance as a man who shows up at a family's front door one afternoon and proceeds to make himself at home in their lives.
One of the pleasures of The Guest is in the way it indulges all the aforementioned aspects of this fantasy persona, creating a sardonically perfect embodiment of cinematic maleness, which Wingard consistently has fun with. Take one scene in particular, an encounter between David - who's temporarily staying with the family of one of his fallen Army comrades - and Anna (Maika Monroe), the sullen 20-year-old who doesn't much like having this stranger around. David has just gotten out of the shower and exits the bathroom wrapped only in a towel and surrounded by steam. Anna is waiting on the other side of the door, catches a glimpse of him, then quickly has to shut herself in the bathroom, catch her breath and compose herself.
The scene is played straight - and it helps establish her burgeoning attraction to David - but the latent comedy of the whole scenario is crystal clear.
The attention given to his myriad appealing qualities is made even more delightful by the fact that we're aware from the start that things are heading in a dark direction. David may be the picture of heroism, but he may be a bit more Michael Myers than John Wayne.
The Myers comparison is particularly apt because of the debt the film very consciously owes to John Carpenter. As is so often the case these days, the film's title card and credits use Carpenter's trademark font (it's called Albertus, if you must know), and Steve Moore's synth-heavy score explicitly calls to mind Carpenter's iconic compositions. (I have to say it one more time: Carpenter is probably the most underappreciated massively influential filmmaker of my lifetime. His fingerprints are all over everything.) But for the use of cell phones, this whole movie could take place in the 1970s or '80s. Ostensibly it already does.
Like so many of the thrillers and horror movies that inspired it, The Guest takes place primarily in suburbia, as David shows up one day - all good manners and easy charm - at the Peterson home. He says he was close friends with their son Caleb, that they served together in Iraq, and that he was there when Caleb died. He promised his friend that, once he got back to the States, he would stop by and check in on his family.
The mother, Laura (Sheila Kelley), still grieving, takes to David immediately, and - as he apparently has nothing but vague plans of finding a hotel and eventually heading down south to look for work - invites him to stay for a few days. He "reluctantly" accepts.
But of course there's something in his eyes - something we see, but which Laura can't - that suggests all is not as it seems. Of the four family members, only Anna seems suspicious. The younger son Luke (Brendan Meyer) is enamored with this new, better version of an older brother. Ditto the father, Spencer (Leland Orser), who's having trouble at work and in David finds someone he can kick back and have a few beers with.
Everywhere he goes, David seems to have this effect. Women give themselves to him willingly. Guys will do favors for him without much hesitation. He's quickly admired, adored and/or feared by just about everyone around. He is The Most Interesting Man in Town.
But then the film introduces a few characters who might not think David is such good news. Barrett's script smartly keeps the details of David's secrets and background to a minimum, offering us just enough of a glimpse to give us an idea what we're dealing with.
As much as I liked a lot about The Guest, Wingard proves he's still not much of an action director, though he's largely graduated from the lazy handheld camerawork that marred the action scenes in You're Next.
Still, the action sequences are the least interesting and least effective thing the film has to offer. It is at its best when it's playing with the conventions of genre and character, like in the third act finale, which is shamelessly contrived, but in the best possible way. (A fog machine is gloriously involved.) Ultimately, the filmmakers stick to their guns, propping up "David Collins" as a mythical figure and doing everything in their power to have fun with him, and exploit him, for all his worth. As houseguests go, this one is as effortlessly likeable as he is terrifying.