If an attractive stranger shows up at your door and claims to know someone close to you, do not let them in and invite them to stay. Just say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” This is the moral of Adam Wingard’s thriller film The Guest.
In small town America, the Peterson family is slowly getting over the death of their son who served in the army overseas. One day, the doorbell rings in the arrival of David Collins (Dan Stevens), a man claiming to have served with their son Caleb. Naturally, the family welcomes him into their home and invites him to stay for a few days. During his stay, David assimilates into the Peterson unit and slowly charms each member. However, daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) begins to suspect something about their new guest when bodies begin to pile up.
I had never heard of The Guest upon its initial release. It was only until I went on IMDb to research actor Dan Stevens (after seeing him in Downton Abbey and Beauty and the Beast) that I had discovered the film. The trailer (link here) promised a hair-raising story with an incredibly sleek design. Well, the trailer got about half of it right.
The weakest part of the film was the plot. It was captivating in the beginning, watching David integrate himself in the Peterson family. I could practically see foreboding things around the corner for the Petersons. But as the film wore on, it eventually became more and more conventional. Each beat has been well done in other movies prior. For example, our protagonist Anna becomes suspicious and is ousted from the group, the only one who knows the ‘truth’. It could have been handled in a more unique way. I would have almost preferred the film taking on a group protagonist structure and facing off against the antagonist together. Rather, the final act was a straight horror cat and mouse chase making use of the Final Girl trope. While beautifully shot, the story ultimately fell flat.
Another problem with the film were the huge holes regarding David’s history. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but it left me feeling a little underwhelmed. I feel his personality and history could have been explored more, giving more reason for Anna and the rest of the family to potentially fear him. In addition, the family was not fleshed out either. There was one moment with the mother crying over her son’s death early on, but it is shoved to the side for more suspense. Virtually nothing is mentioned about Mr. Peterson’s, Anna’s, or brother Luke’s processes of grief over Caleb and their attempts to salvage their lives. I believe that if the family’s state after Caleb’s death was covered more, the suspense would have flowed more naturally and the family wouldn’t appear as gullible. Rather, they would appear more naive and desperate to recapture that feeling of a whole family.
Despite the mediocre plot, director Adam Wingard succeeded through his visual presentation in The Guest. He was able to create striking compositions by using color and space, alternating natural colors and open spaces with bright neons and interior shots. The film opens emphasizing the natural colors and the wide open spaces of the small town. It progresses until one key moment where there is a splash of neon lights at a party. The lighting here provides a new view on David’s character shifting from charming soldier to something more sinister. This scene pinpoints a large character shift and propels the narrative forward. It never ceases to amaze me how filmic elements like lighting can tell you more than a line of dialogue.
Even though the bright neons are introduced, the natural colors and open spaces still prevail. It emphasizes the feeling of small town America and the unexpectedness of David’s arrival in the town. It helps to offset the unnatural neon colors as well and mask anything truly wrong. Wingard seemed to have thought out his compositions allowing for a majority of his story to be told through them and helping to generate a thrilling environment.
Ultimately, Wingard’s direction for The Guest helped to accentuate my favorite component of the film: Dan Stevens’s performance as David. He has certainly come a long way from his roots on Downton Abbey. Here, he sheds his accent for an American one and is the perfect blend of charming and creepy. There would be moments where he would listen to someone talk and be completely still and silent, looking incredibly dark and menacing. A few beats later and he would become oh so disarming. There was always a sense that something was off about him. While the plot doesn’t give him much to work with, Stevens just creates a layered performance, almost like a Halloween mask. First there is a charming layer, wooing the Peterson family one by one. Then the mask fractures and begins to reveal the real David. It was slow and made me look forward to seeing what the real David was like.
Overall, The Guest is a fine film to watch. There are some strong elements and some forgettable ones. The highlights are the cinematography and Dan Stevens while the Peterson clan and the story were dull and conventional. If you are like me and like Dan Stevens, I would check this out. He carries the movie so much I found myself rooting for him, and he’s the suspicious one! It’s a decent thriller, but doesn’t leave you chilled to the bone. If you are looking to try the thriller genre, I suggest this is a good place to start. I give the Guest a B-.
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