Boy, Adam Wingard has really come into his own. Following up his last big release, You’re Next, is no small task considering the heaps of praise the film received by fans and critics alike (I even put it on my list of best films that year). Any great filmmaker has a period of intense creativity, and Wingard seems to be in the midst of his. The Guest, while not as successful as You’re Next, is the work of a confident, creative, playful director, and his team-up with writer Simon Barrett is another film worth your time.
The plot doesn’t necessarily break new ground. A stranger named David shows up on the doorstep of the Peterson family. Claiming to be a friend of their son, killed in action in the Middle East, mother Laura (Sheila Kelley, Lost) is quick to invite him to stay after he delivers a simple message – that their son, Caleb, wanted them to know he loved them and was thinking of them in his last moments. From the framed flag over the mantle to the fractured manner in which the family interacts, it is clear Caleb’s death casts a dark shadow over the family, and David offers welcome solace.
Despite the initial misgivings of the family, especially from the work-challenged father, Spencer (Leland Orser, 24), David insinuates himself into the family with an easy charm and graciousness that is all down-home politeness. Underneath, of course, we see that all is not quite right with David. His rather aggressive advice to picked-on high schooler and youngest son, Luke (Brendan Meyer, The 100), displays a tendency to violence that culminates in a barroom brawl. His fixation on daughter Anna (Maika Monroe, It Follows) also leads to a series of very unfortunate events for those around her. In fact, everyone in the family seems better off with David around, but clues accumulate to suggest that this titular guest is a very dangerous individual.
As Anna investigates further, David’s past is revealed and a larger conspiracy comes to light. And yet, the movie never strays far from the family drama that characterizes its first half, which maintains a sense of urgency as David’s behavior grows more extreme and an inevitable explosion of violence is unleashed.
Before going any further, let’s talk Dan Stevens’ performance as David. Like Jill Larson’s noteworthy turn as the title character in The Taking of Deborah Logan, this movie rests squarely on the shoulders of Stevens. His ability to transform from ‘aw shucks’ mode to something truly sinister is a delight to watch, and Wingard wisely never allows the proceedings to get mired down in darkness, instead finding a tone of dark humor that makes The Guest not just tense, but immensely entertaining. Watching this powder keg of a character bounce off the family and friends is an exercise in the art of teasing. We know this guy is going to lose it, we just don’t know where or when, and this dynamic makes The Guest a cut above most films that employ the mysterious visitor trope.
Also noteworthy in the film, the music boasts a nice blend of ominous Euro-pop and I would be a liar if I didn’t say the inclusion of Love & Rockets’ “Haunted When the Minutes Drag” made me incredibly happy. There is an odd, 80s-infused aesthetic that makes the visuals unique. Also, when the violence comes, it is urgent and brutal, especially a terrific scene in the local diner where Anna works, a scene which also perfectly captures the darkly comic tone of the film as a whole.
I have my issues with the reveal of David’s background as it feels a bit too science-fiction-y for my tastes, especially considering how grounded the rest of the film strikes me, but that is a relatively minor complaint when I look back at how much plain fun I had watching this movie. The final showdown between David and the Peterson clan is somewhat predictable, but still satisfying, and I especially like Barrett and Wingard’s clever use of a fog machine. The last shot, too, left me feeling like I’d watched a movie made by creators who giggled their way through production, delighting themselves with every creative decision.
I don’t know where Wingard and Barrett are headed next, save for a mention of television movie called Outcast on the horizon, but you better believe I’m going to see it. The Guest may not be philosophically deep, but its playfulness and the star-making performance from Dan Stevens make it required viewing for fans of Wingard’s previous work, and I can unreservedly recommend it to all of you.