The Guest (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
For a while “The Guest,” written by Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, is quite a solid throwback to thrillers from the ‘80s, but it ends up becoming a letdown because it fails to establish a protagonist the audience can root for. While it is enjoyable that the villain is written in such a way that we almost want him to get away with all of the things he did, at the same time we know that he must be punished for them. For the film to have been a fully effective throwback, however, polarity ought to have been established. In ‘80s thrillers, there is almost always a defined good versus evil.
The Peterson family has recently lost their son and brother in the war. So when a man named David (Dan Stevens) knocks on their door and introduces himself as one of Caleb’s close friends in the army, the Petersons welcome David into their home to stay for a couple of days until he figures out what to do next. Anna (Maika Monroe), the middle child, feels there is something not quite right about the guy so she decides to ask questions, starting with a call to the military.
Stevens plays David with such charisma that it is near impossible not to want to like him. The performance is comparable to what Ryan Gosling might do: approach a potentially morally corrupt character and try as hard as possible to hide that evil within. The key word is “try” because once in a while he lets out a certain look or stands in such a way that there is no shadow of a doubt that the person in front of us is not right in the head. It is a smart performance by Stevens; he hits all the right notes.
The weakness is in the character development of the two remaining siblings, Anna and Luke (Brendan Meyer), the duo that we are supposed to root for to survive the ordeal. While we are given a skeletal idea of who they are and what they deal with on a daily basis, they do not go through a significant change divorced from David’s direct influence. Thus, David has the active role while Anna and Luke merely respond. It might have been more engaging if the formula were changed once in a while.
The picture is at its lowest when the military gets involved. Great tension is gathered at times when there is only the family and the stranger living under the same roof. We grow curious as to how they can possibly outsmart or overpower David. There is suspense. However, when the guns come out and bullets come flying, it becomes a standard, unimpressive action film. It is a good decision, however, to have the final confrontation somewhere that is isolated with a synth pop soundtrack that injects excitement and poetry to the violent turn of events.
“The Guest” takes a number of risks. While some of them do not pay off, especially the scenes with the parents (Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser), a few high points are memorable. The scene at the bar with the high school bullies and Anna’s terrible timing of letting her secret out quickly come to mind. Certainly the picture entertains and has some style. However, one gets the impression that the writing is unfocused not only with respect to providing well-defined protagonists worth rooting for but also in the mishmash of genres prevalent in the second half.