Studio: Universal Studios
Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Producer: Jessica Calder, Keith Calder
Stars: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley, Brendan Meyer, Chase Williamson, Ethan Embry, Joel David Moore, Lance Reddick
An unexpected houseguest turns the lives of the Peterson family upside down in violent ways as his true identity is uncovered.
Since bowing at Sundance and extending its festival presence into SXSW, “The Guest” has lapped up heaps of hoots, hollers, and praise from midnight audiences pleased by the film’s balls-to-the-wall sense of throwback thriller cinema. Indeed, “The Guest” has plenty of flair, style, and grin-worthy scenes poised to delight demented appetites for seeing the teeth of bullies and bumblers meet walls at high speeds. But there is a hollow feeling to the substance that makes a lasting impression less likely, despite the film’s short-term satisfaction.
Still mourning the wartime death of their soldier son Caleb, the Petersons have their working class world thrown for a greater loop when an odd yet irresistibly charming man arrives on their doorstep. Claiming to be Caleb’s platoon partner and best friend, the family even has a photo on the mantle depicting the two of them together, David has been dispatched to pass on parting words of “I love you” consolation to distraught mother Laura, woe-is-me father Spencer, mopey brother Luke, and rebellious sister Anna.
Mom sees David as a potential surrogate to at least temporarily fill Caleb’s void. Everyone else in the Peterson household just sees an uninvited guest. Until the various pests, troublemakers, and workplace rivals plaguing their mundane suburban lives start turning up dead. Spencer enjoys a promotion at the office. Luke gains the confidence to fight back at school. But Anna decides to dig into David’s military background and discover who this mystery man with permanent solutions to temporary problems really is.
“The Guest” is a vigilante action film with a black comedy bent and an overdose of nostalgia for 1980’s hyper-violence and cinematic styling. Where it works best is in its characterizations of one unpredictable dynamite stick just waiting to light and an average assembly of blue collar Joneses.
A great deal of “The Guest” is carried by David’s charm, embodied to a tee by Dan Stevens, who commands all eyes on him whenever he is onscreen. Stevens infuses David with an impossibly handsome smoothness when he needs to be friendly or sympathetic, and a dangerous cold stare when it comes time to amp up the atmosphere with tension.
David’s disarming smile accents his charismatic way with words, even though he always says more with his posture and presence. Screenwriter Simon Barrett intentionally gives David only as much dialogue as is necessary while keeping his mystique intact, allowing director Adam Wingard to give Stevens free reign for letting loose in the moments when it comes time to explode.
Rising to meet Stevens’ impressive performance pound-for-pound is Maika Monroe as Anna, David’s unlikely teenage nemesis. “The Guest” is almost as much her movie to own as it is Stevens’. And Monroe, who is a shoo-in to portray Gwen Stefani should there ever be a No Doubt biopic, does indeed own it.
The letdown with “The Guest” is that for all the fun it delivers in individual segments, highlighted by amusing moments and juicy revenge scenarios, the whole package is too glib in its tone for a story with any true depth. The ongoing mystery regarding who David really is and why he chooses the Petersons for a safe haven seems to be building towards a revelation that the script does not actually contain.
Constant teasing about what is taking place offscreen in between scenes gives the impression of a big payoff or twist, and then the movie settles for straightforward vignettes about a one-man army with a loose screw turning an unassuming small town upside-down. “The Guest” feels like it should have been smarter than its simple setup, but it is just fine being “good enough.”
Smiles initially accompany the end of the movie, until there is a “hey, wait a minute” realization that the reason why David arrived at the Peterson’s in the first place is never explained. Keep looking back after the fact and the light bulbs continue igniting. “The Guest” ends up as less of a fully satisfying film and more of a passport for Wingard, Barrett, and the cast to run wild in a well-crafted, but somewhat empty playground. Sure, that may make for some crowd-pleasing moments, but not necessarily a lasting impression.
Review Score: 65