Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Guest is insanely inventive and gleefully manic, a madly energetic psychological thriller with pizazz and spunk. The film is built on a simple premise: a man arrives as a guest in someone’s home but doesn’t seem to be who he says he is. The story turns out to be much more grandiose and funny than that set-up insinuates, however, allowing the characters to appropriately embrace the absurdity and humor that would derive from such a tense, hostile situation. The titular visitor is David (Dan Stevens), a recently discharged soldier returning from Iraw to his hometown. He doesn’t have a place to stay so he hopes that going to the Peterson family’s house won’t be too much trouble. Their son passed away during the war months ago, and David served with him. Maybe he’ll be able to bridge that mourning period for the family and help them through their suffering.
The Peterson family has an interesting group of members that all take kindly to David: the mother (Sheila Kelley) likes David because he’s telling her all about her son and she can live through his experiences; the father (Leland Orser) is struggling to move up in his workplace and likes to have a buddy with whom he can drink and talk sports; the daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe), begins to crush on him after he joins her for a party and seems to be the coolest cat in the room; and the son, Luke (Brendan Meyer), likes him because David kicks the asses of his bullies and gives him sound advice for future situations. The problem with all of them growing high on David? He’s not who he seems to be. That’s the central struggle at the heart of the film, with something clearly wrong with David through his lies and vicious anger issues. When the military gets involved and a unit led by Carver (Lance Reddick) begins to enter their town to investigate, things escalate quickly.
Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have now paired for two excellently subversive romps on well-worn genres. Their previous effort, You’re Next, is a hilarious and viciously told horror entry, proving that the genre can indeed be sparked with new life when taken differently down a familiar path. The Guest plays on many of the same strings: the story is straight out of ’80s B-movie heaven, with the mysterious man with a particular set of skills creating a hostile force in a family unit. But David is seemingly superhuman for much of the film, able to withstand excessive amounts of alcohol, drugs, and violence with pretty rapid recovery. It’s funny to see how calmly he handles situations since it resembles a charming, handsome robot destroying everything in his path. Dan Stevens sells the role perfectly and commits wholly, giving David a likable edge that goes crazy in the final half hour.
The story grows too nonsensical during its conclusion, tying together loose ends with seemingly bigger questions. Yet it remains engaging because of the performances and the self-aware nature of its narrative. One of the best scenes in the film involves an ode to a scene earlier, when the patriarch of the Peterson family complains that his boss is going to give a higher-up position to someone else when he deserves it more. Later, he comes home with a somber face and tells the family that his boss apparently committed suicide. It’s all somber until he tacks on at the end that the bright side is that he’s going to get promoted. The film plays these horrible actions for laughs because a self-conscious story needs a bit of humor to feel original. The Guest is sporadically comparable to efforts like The Stepfather and Jacob’s Ladder, two serious films from vastly different genres that get at the idea of an unwelcome invader and military experiments, respectively. Yet instead of paying homage, the story sticks up a big middle finger to those stories and tells its own twisted narrative.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)