In The Guest, Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey fame) plays a mysterious man who insinuates himself into a heartland family’s life. And he does it with such sustained you-know-I’m-really-up-to-no-good insincerity that it takes on the quality of performance art. Stevens is so good at looking us right in the eye, giving a half-cocked smile, and clearly lying through his teeth, that he keeps us watching long after the movie has lost our interest.
We first see David (Stevens) as a pair of combat boots running along a rural road. Then he appears on the doorstep of Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley), whose son Caleb has died while serving in the military. David, also a vet, says he knew Caleb well and that he promised his friend he’d find the Peterson family to tell each and every one of them how much the young man loved them. (“How’d you get here?” she asks. “I ran,” he says. “I needed the exercise.” Oh.) Trusting Laura (that fool) invites the hunky David in and asks him to stay; he demurs, briefly, but soon enough, he’s sleeping in Caleb’s room, sharing beers with wary Dad (Leland Orser), picking up shy younger brother Luke (Brendan Meyer) from school, and going to parties with hot, rebellious sister Anna (Maika Monroe).
Of course, nothing is as it seems, yadda, yadda, yadda. The narrative template of an impostor bewitching a family is nothing new, and it cuts across genres — from Moliere’s Tartuffe to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. But there always has to be that passage, however brief, when we wish the character were genuine, that the lie were real. And while we never believe David, we do kind of want him to stick around, at least at first, as we watch him take on everything from schoolyard bullies to asshole ex-boyfriends. (Who doesn’t get a visceral thrill out of watching a douchey jock get his head bashed in with a beer bottle?) Briefly, it’s as if the Petersons have received their own custom psycho, to deploy as they fit. Only the sister, Anna, has a healthy amount of suspicion towards David, and watching the two dance around each other is a perverse delight: Maika Monroe (who will soon also star in one of the better horror films of recent years, It Follows) expertly conveys both the attraction and repulsion her character feels for this increasingly mysterious drifter.
The Guest does throw some vaguely ridiculous left-field surprises our way in its second half, as we learn more about David’s story. But the strangeness of these twists is belied by their shoddy execution; mostly, they serve an excuse for The Wire’s Lance Reddick to show up in the third act and overact hilariously. Besides, the story never really veers from its general, long-anticipated path: putting David on a collision course with Anna.
Director Adam Wingard was also responsible for last year’s indie horror film You’re Next, which I detested, even though many other critics admired it. To me, Wingard didn’t seem up to the challenge of juggling the film’s clashing tonal contrasts; he also wasn’t particularly adept at using space, a rather terrible problem to have when making a home-invasion slasher flick. No such worries here. Save for some blah shootouts in the third act, there’s precious little need for spatial coherence in The Guest, and tonally, the film remains mostly on an even keel, anchored by David’s arch insincerity.
Much more confident and fluid than that earlier film, The Guest also has a more refined aesthetic sensibility than the ugly You’re Next. Indeed, a climactic setpiece set in a school’s gonzo Halloween tunnel display — complete with garish red corridors, walls of mirrors, and heavy smoke effects — seems to play on the very lack of continuity in the film’s action scenes, fragmenting images and heightening atmosphere to the level of near-abstraction. Wingard is also clearly enamored of the synthesized soundtracks of Giallo and John Carpenter films, and here, he turns that into a whole thing, too: A mix Anna makes for David becomes a plot point, giving the director an excuse to practically drench his scenes in dreamy electronica. It’s not a particularly brilliant conceit, but, not unlike Stevens’s beautifully one-note performance, it’s evocative nevertheless — lending the whole movie an aura of pop inevitability, turning its blunt predictability into something of a virtue.