The Guest review

Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens is superb as a mysterious stranger in The Guest.

Unlike a number of my film critic colleagues, I did not consider director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett’s last film, You’re Next, to be the next-level horror outing that some claimed it was. It was suspenseful, well-made, with some decent narrative twists and genre subversions, but otherwise it was a standard home invasion film with a bunch of characters that were mostly hard to like or care for. With The Guest, the pair mount a homage to a particular era and genre of filmmaking that could have backfired and turned into cheap imitation, but instead they’ve come up with their most accomplished effort yet.

The reason? This time Wingard and Barrett have worked harder, it seems, at crafting their characters and the relationships between them, so that even though the movie holds few surprises in terms of its basic narrative structure, it’s those relationships and how they play into the storyline that keeps the movie gripping almost from start to finish. Wingard’s pacing and editing are right on point as well – he holds back on the full fireworks until the movie’s second half, making them hit that much harder — and he’s aided by a cast so good that even the teen protagonists are real, sympathetic and not annoying like they could have easily been.

An absolutely excellent Dan Stevens, a long way from Downton Abbey, stars as David, who shows up unexpectedly at the home of the Petersen family and claims to be a friend of their son, Caleb, who was killed in combat overseas. Still vulnerable and wracked with grief, Caleb’s mother Laura (Sheila Kelley) welcomes David into their home and invites him to stay. The soft-spoken, effortlessly helpful and always polite vet soon insinuates himself into the lives of Laura, dad Spencer (Leland Orser) and son Luke (Brendan Meyer), with the only one who keeps herself somewhat distant from his charms is daughter Anna (Maika Monroe).

Anna is also the only one who is suspicious of David, and as a series of strange incidents occur that just happen to improve the lives of the Peterson family, she begins to dig into David’s past and finds out, naturally, that not all is what it seems. Cue the arrival of a secret military organization (led by a authoritative Lance Reddick) and the eventual revelation of David’s true history – which does not bode well for anyone who crosses his path.

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Make no mistake, The Guest wears its intentions on its sleeve right from the start. David is too polite, too good to be true, and yet you can’t help but feel that he truly has the Petersons’ best interests at heart even as his steely glare and casual ability to beat people down signal right away that there is more to this guy than his genteel Kentucky accent suggests. David’s back story, when unveiled, is no tremendous surprise either – but his manner even during the confrontation-heavy third act is. Without giving away everything, the best way to describe it is that David never completely loses his appeal, which actually gives him an air of poignancy.

Stevens is perfect in the role, quiet and coiled and smoothly efficient in everything he does and says, and he proves himself a formidable physical presence. Kelley and Orser accurately capture the Petersons’ middle-aged sadness and rut, but the film’s other real discovery is Monroe. Relatively unknown and with just a few small roles to her credit, Monroe makes a character who could easily been irritating and way too ironic and makes her a real teenage heroine – yes, she’s cynical and rebellious but her love for her family overrides all and, unlike most characters of this kind, she never does anything stupid purely to move the story along.

Wingard and Barrett have fashioned The Guest as a tribute to the kind of intimate thrillers that were prevalent in the ‘80s, ranging from Halloween to The Terminator to The Hitcher, and the DNA of all those films is embedded in theirs. But the movie never feels like a hollow exercise in nostalgia or mere replication (like, say, the Machete films or brainless junk like Hobo with a Shotgun). Setting it in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion adds just a touch of modern relevance, although any sort of political comment is the furthest thing from the filmmakers’ minds here. They’re simply out to deliver a suspenseful hybrid thriller that blends action, humor, horror, mystery and a tinge of sci-fi in a story that feels satisfying and is anchored by well-thought-out characters. The Guest is fun, entertaining and smart, and you’ll probably be glad to have visited with him for a while.

The Guest is out now in theaters.

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4 out of 5