The Guest | Director Adam Wingard | Score: 6.1
David Collins (Dan Stevens) seems like a pretty upstanding dude. Or he would if the film, with its ominous music, and shots of him in repose, sitting without blinking in the lotus position, where the bonhomie drains off of his face like cheap foundation powder in a drizzle, wasn’t constantly suggesting otherwise. He’s got all sorts of talents and skills. Visiting the family of his deceased soldier buddy somewhere in New Mexico, he starts out as a kind of benign guardian spirit, offering his friend’s mother, Laura (Sheila Kelley), solace, his father, Spencer (Leland Orser), a chance to rise up in the ranks of his small-time job to become regional manager; his younger brother, Luke (Brendan Meyer), an opportunity to get savage revenge on the high school bullies who keep harassing him; and his fetching, 20-year-old sister, Anna (Maika Monroe), a chance to find a different boyfriend, such as himself.
Along the way, he also displays tremendous skills in knife work, combat, and advanced firearm discharge, all without ever needing to sleep, or even blink, when he’s not being watched. It’s really only when Anna starts to get suspicious of him and his true intentions, especially after a couple of her friends turn up dead in the desert, that things really start to take a turn for the bloody worse.
What’s intriguing about writer/director Adam Wingard’s perfectly entertaining thriller is just how self-aware it is of its own propensity for foolishness. Is the moment when David confronts Luke’s high school principal with a hate-crime lawsuit after the school bureaucrat threatens to expel the boy after he finally retaliates against one of his abusers meant to be taken at face value, or is his admission that the boy is gay simply a ploy to throw the principal off the track? Do we read the film’s action-studded climax in a Halloween-themed haunted maze, replete with strobe lights, fun-house mirrors and cubic tons of dry-ice smoke as just so much over-the-top idiocy, or as carefully crafted, excessive action exaltation?
Of course, it’s difficult to say definitively with sneaky films such as this, but from the amusingly abrupt opening credits — where we cut from a lone figure jogging down a rocky dirt road to a sudden flash of the title card with a loud splash of music, and just as quickly to a shot of a scarecrow standing uncertainly amongst several flat fields — to the bugnuts conclusion (let’s just say it involves a would-be death scene where a character gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up to his attacker), there is a pretty strong sense that Wingard, whose You’re Next worked similarly self-aware angles, knows precisely what he’s doing.
Which frees us up to take the film on its own amusing merits. First off, you have Stevens, continuing his Not-Just-A-British-Fop Tour, absolutely gnashing the scenery with his bare teeth, turning Collins into just the sort of charming, desirable, complete sociopath that this family so dearly needs, even as he starts whacking its members. Stevens, who exploits his boyish charm, intense blue eyes, and topsy-turvy smile to maximum effect here, seems perfectly in his element, shifting in a given scene from smooth-talking mooch to cold-eyed killer and back again in the blink of an eye. Freed at last from the double-breasted suits and posh accent of Downton Abbey, Stevens has a ball as the explosively remote Collins, apologizing gravely even as he’s literally stabbing someone in the heart as he’s doing it. Enough with the china cups and monocles, bring on the blood squibs.
The director also has a find with young Brendan Meyer, who endows the sad-sack Luke with permanently crestfallen eyes and a leeching, awkward sort of presence. He’s the kind of kid you would see in the cafeteria, instantly feel sorry for, and end up sitting as far away from as possible. Hanging out with the debonair, take-no-prisoners Collins, you see his face finally spark with some kind of vitality, a kid in a dark, wet tunnel who becomes convinced he’s finally spotted a little flame of escape. It’s his plaintive reaction to his sister’s dire warnings of the murderous inclinations in their houseguest at the end (“David would never hurt us,” he wails) that proves just how deep in the much Luke is willing to go to keep that particular candle lit.
For a film that begins with a scarecrow and ends with a profane epithet, it sounds difficult to believe, but Wingard never lets the pulpy material spin out of his control. He’s like the dude in the foxhole who seems like he belongs there, pumping round after round off into the darkness, cackling the whole time. He might not be hitting much, but he’s having a hell of a time doing it.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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