To be perfectly honest I had never heard of “The Guest”, at least not until it started popping up on various movie blogs. The film landed with a rather weak release and with practically no big studio backing. But in an almost underground-like show of support “The Guest” has started to catch on and more people are seeing it. Over time it has grown an enthusiastic fan-base, and many critics have given the film high marks. But me, I continue to wrestle with the movie and its overall aim.
“The Guest” employs several familiar plot points yanked from a host of different movies. It’s called an action thriller, but it incorporates elements of horror and comedy (sometimes intentional, other times…). The film’s central conceit involves a handsome and charming blue-eyed stranger named David (Dan Stevens). One day he shows up at the door of the Peterson’s, a bereaved family who recently lost a loved one to the war in Afghanistan. He tells Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley) that he served with her son Caleb and was with him when he died in service. This immediately wins her over.
One by one David wins over the other members of the Peterson family. Caleb’s father (Leland Orser) is skeptical at first, but it only takes a few beers to win him over. David wins over Caleb’s sister Anna (Maika Monroe) by simply being cool at a party and digging her music. And finally he wins over Caleb’s little brother Luke (Brendan Meyer) by beating up the group of bullies who have been terrorizing him. So everybody loves David, well except for the audience because the film never makes an effort to hide the fact that something is clearly wrong with the guy.
The story tries to unfold at a deliberate pace and it doesn’t reveal all of its cards until the third act. But when it does show its hand things get a bit ridiculous. This is when it becomes harder to decipher what “The Guest” wants to be. It seems to struggle with a schizophrenic identity crisis. Does it want to be an action film? Does it want to be a horror thriller? Does it want to be a comedy? Personally I think it wants to be all of those things. The problem is you can’t always distinguish between parody and simply bad filmmaking. There are several scenes that are so ridiculous they have to be attempts at humor. Other times I’m not so sure.
At the same time the film’s genre waffling isn’t always a bad thing. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett are clearly trying to have fun and they heighten every aspect of the movie. I really liked that approach when it was kept under control. There were also some pretty decent performances. Dan Stevens is the centerpiece and for the most part he does a pretty good job. He works hard to give us a mix of charming and psychotic. It’s a fun performance but I kept thinking the family must be idiots for not noticing his weirdness. I laughed particularly hard when Stevens would give us one of his glazed over evil stares. The goofiness of it isn’t totally his fault. A lot of that could be traced to the material and the direction.
But while I did struggle putting aside some of these issues, the film was still oddly entertaining. It never lulls and I was always engaged. The movie runs a quick 95 minutes and it does plenty of fun and creative things during that time to keep my attention. I can’t say I’m smitten with “The Guest” like many of my movie blogging pals, but I can see where their enthusiasm comes from. It was just too uneven and sporadic for me and I never could fully embrace it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its moments.