“Dan Stevens’ whacked-out performance elevates ‘The Guest’ above its throwback origins.”
Release date: September 17, 2014 (USA)
Director: Adam Wingard
Stars: Dan Stevens, Sheila Kelley, Maika Monroe
Running time: 99 minutes
MPAA rating: R
So I hope Dan Stevens becomes a thing.
The Guest actor gives such a fun, all-out performance as a dangerous veteran who weaves his way into the lives of a family in the Midwest. Honestly, the film is a knowing reproduction of films like The Stepfather, and without Stevens’ participation, it might have been just that: a cover song done in another key. But as David, Stevens brings charm, sex, and this off-kilter extra element to the movie.
Stevens grins and charms his way into the life of the Peterson family, still grieving the loss of their son and brother during the war. And here comes this stranger who claims to have known him, and who says and does all the right things. Which is great, because the Petersons are a mess – at least, in the lower middle-class way that I think director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett think lower middle-class folk are troubled. It’s the very broad, semi-condescending take on its characters’ class and lives that hold The Guest back from being a film I can recommend without qualification – but more on that in a bit.
For its first half, The Guest doesn’t strain too far from the template for this kind of movie, making David supernaturally perfect for the Petersons. David’s there for bullied high schooler Luke (Brendan Meyer), a perfect surrogate son for grief-stricken mom, Laura (Sheila Kelley), a drinking buddy for professionally frustrated dad Spencer (Leland Orser), and confusingly datable big brother for the aimless and rebellious daughter Anna (Maika Monroe).
Wingard and Barrett make the decision to telegraph the big “twist” that David isn’t all that he seems as obviously and just this side of obnoxiously as possible. And it’s here that you either have to give credit to the filmmakers or the lead actor for somehow finding the right balance tonally so that it doesn’t ultimately annoy.
Stevens plays David like a robot that has protocols for dealing with people (and “dealing” with people, when the occasion arises). He only seems to be “on” around other people, deploying that half-cocked smile and Southern accent like a weapon. That decision ultimately saves the movie when it makes a tilt from Lifetime drama to full-on Cannon film when Lance Reddick shows up in a leather trench coat with a bunch of goons. Stevens holds it all together in a performance that brings together the goofy drama and the goofier-still action conceit.
The rest of the cast is a little less successful, largely because Barrett and Wingard don’t seem especially interested in them. Poor Sheila Kelley disappears for most of the film, relegated to crying mom, while another director and writer might have had something to say or do with Orser beyond “sad dad who is also drunk.” The adult Petersons don’t really exist as characters (or even obstacles for David), they’re just kind of there, a rough sketch of working class life for David to demolish – it’s why some of the events of the last act feel weightless.
The kids fare a little better: Brendan Meyer’s character makes a surprising turn in the third act which shows how truly desperate he is for a friend. Monroe does what she can with Anna, the character who can’t shake her suspicions that there’s something “off” about Anna. But there’s something queasy about our first introduction to Anna being a slow pan up her legs, which feels weird because the rest of the movie is so cut off from treating her like a sexual object. A later scene with David emerging in a haze of steam out of the shower makes more sense because he’s supposed to be an object of desire for the Petersons (and pretty much anyone else). It just feels gratuitous, and reinforces this weird feeling based on their previous work that Barrett and Wingard don’t really know what to do with the women in their movies.
Again, it comes down to feeling like so much of their films are about effect above all else. The mid to late 80’s dramas that inspired the film don’t really gibe with Steve Moore’s pounding synth score. It’s just there because it’s cool (and it is cool in and of itself), but doesn’t really match the material. Similarly, the movie is set during the days leading up to Halloween so we can get not just a Halloween party in the story’s middle, but a haunted house setpiece at the end. Again, it’s all for effect and never really feels moored to anything in the story, but it’s well-executed effect and… works, I guess?
If you can get over some barely-there characterization and its kitchen sink approach to pleasing the audience, there’s a lot to recommend The Guest. Go see it for Stevens, enjoy the score, and hope that we see David again.