The Peterson family are mourning the loss of their son in Afghanistan when a stranger comes to call. David (Dan Stevens) claims to have been a friend of their fallen family member who has come to check that they are all OK. It isn’t long before he has won over the whole family with his charm, intensity, and toplessness. The only person not so keen is rebellious daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) who senses that something is not right with David and that he may not be what he claims…
I imagine you can guess whether Anna is right or not.
The Guest is a thriller… of sorts. It is certainly thrilling but this is not a film where you gasp in horror when someone is killed or in danger. Instead you laugh loudly, punch the air, and shovel yet more popcorn into your chuckling face. The aim of the game here is to have fun and not take the film, or David, too seriously. While working within the confines of a horror/thriller writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard are doing so with a wry smile and seemingly a desire to entertain rather than scare their audience.
Whenever David does something a little unusual, something to indicate he isn’t the perfect houseguest but possibly a maniac, it is done with an arched eyebrow to ensure we know it’s only a bit of fun. The Guest so desperately doesn’t want to be taken seriously that every scene comes complete with a metaphorical wink or nudge to indicate that the film has its tongue firmly in its cheek.
The film starts slow and calm but events gradually escalate towards an explosive, dry-ice, mirror maze conclusion with no real resolution. It is when the film is at its most fantastical that the earlier, almost sarcastic, tone makes sense. If the first two acts were to be taken seriously the film would be a taut thriller ending in a mismatched Die Hard finale. As it is the whole feature feels like a bit of a joke so when guns start blazing (and they do) and grenades start rolling (and they do) it all feels perfectly logical. Whether this mix of genre and tone works for you or not depends wholly on how happy you are to enjoy the film as a piece of satire or whether you want it to stand up to closer scrutiny as a film in its own right.
Dan Stevens is perfectly fine as the mysterious antagonist though the role of emotionless Übermensch may not be much of a stretch acting-wise. More work has been done on his accent and body with one transformed into a low American growl and the other a lean, buff physique. Any roundness from Stevens’ Downton Abbey days is long gone and fans will enjoy the entirely plot-centric/gratuitous topless scene. Do not fear misogynists as the film also has Maika Monroe who never seems to wear anything but thigh high socks or stockings. Something for the whole family. To ogle.
The Guest succeeds in being the barrel of fun it wants to be but isn’t as satisfying in the long-term. With David being such an enjoyable sociopath to watch I wasn’t sure if we were rooting for him or for final girl Anna. When the grand showdown comes down to the two of them, and her brother Luke (Brendan Meyer), your emotional response needs someone to cheer for.
Unfortunately when you spend all your time with your tongue in your cheek, winking with one eye, a raised eyebrow, wry smile, and a frantically nudging elbow you are going to come across as a little odd. What The Guest has in spades is excitement and amusement but it then unfortunately lacks in being a true horror or thriller.
A heck of a lot of fun though.