Adam Wingard’s The Guest finds Dan Stevens playing a sensual shark, a predatory beast with a gorgeous smile and blue eyes that flash with warmth and humor while he’s in the presence of anyone he wants to impress. But watch him alone in a room away from anyone’s eyes and it’s a different story completely. Those eyes turn steely cold and the mouth goes grim. In The Guest, Stevens proves he’s leading man material in a way he’s never had the opportunity to do before, stretching those muscles, putting on the charm when needed, and turning lethal at the drop of a hat. The Guest gives Stevens a juicy role and he eats it up, obviously relishing every delicious bite.
Director Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (the team that brought us You’re Next) created a horror film that’s brutally vicious yet has a flair for fun. Stevens stars as David, a veteran who knocks on the door of the family of one of his fallen brother in arms, Caleb, politely introducing himself with all the requisite ma’ams and sirs and earning a stay in the dead soldier’s room.
David plays nice with the family but there’s a cruel undercurrent flowing through his actions. Something’s not quite right with this veteran and it’s not explained away with PTSD as Caleb’s dad (Leland Orser) hypothesizes. Caleb’s mom is blind to any of David’s faults but then again she’s so shut down following the death of her son that she wouldn’t notice if there was, literally, an elephant sitting in her living room. Daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) and son Luke (Brendan Meyer) are cautious with this stranger who’s worked his way into their lives, protective of their mom and dad and leery of letting David get too close. But while they initially hold David at arm’s length, he charms his way into their confidence by saying exactly what they want to hear and by being a badass that no one will mess with. Plus, Anna doesn’t want to admit it but this hunky stranger’s getting her all hot and bothered, something that’s evident to David when he notices her reaction after he emerges from a shower wearing nothing but a towel.
So what’s David’s real story? It’s very vaguely discussed but he was apparently part of an “experimental military program” run by Major Carver (Lance Reddick). And while David’s a killer and has plans to add to his kill count, this bare minimum knowledge of his past allows us to view him as both a villain and a victim. Does he actually want to kill or is this something programmed into him that he has no control over whatsoever? Mulling over David’s motivation for murder is just one of the joys of sitting through The Guest.
Wingard plays the horror straight, with the characters never once winking at the camera. This is a solid, taut, and delightfully cleverly horror/thriller that doesn’t hit a single wrong note. Any jokes are organic to the story and the storytelling’s so smooth that not once are we laughing at these characters. As the tension ratchets up in the final act, The Guest takes the story to an actual fun house maze complete with fog machine and mirrors. But instead of being a silly letdown that comes across as a generic horror movie ripoff, this maze of mirrors and smoke provides the perfect atmosphere in which to play out the showdown that’s been set up so carefully over the course of the film.
-By Rebecca Murray
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