The film opens with a shot of a man jogging down a road, carrying a large pack on his back. We don't see his face, but it's clear that he's young, fit, blonde and probably a member of the military. Then, a title card: THE GUEST, thrown up in a giant '80s-style font and accompanied by a ferocious blast of ominous music. Never trust a man whose introduction is accompanied by a noise like that.
Soon after, we're given a better look at the guy. His name is David Collins (Dan Stevens, A Walk Among the Tombstones), and he's a handsome, polite young man with piercing blue eyes, a just-relaxed-enough southern drawl and a deferential smile. He's come to town to visit the Peterson family, who are still grieving the death of their son Caleb. It seems that David was a member of Caleb's unit, and that he was there when Caleb passed away. “He asked me to tell all of you that he loved you and that he was thinking of you to the end, so that's what I'm doing,” he says. David is warm and empathetic when he says these things. Maybe too warm and empathetic, or maybe it's just that title card lingering with us.
Each member of the Peterson family has a slightly different initial reaction to David's arrival. Caleb's mother Laura (Sheila Kelley, Lost) is immensely grateful for his kind message, but her husband Spencer (Leland Orser, Faults) fears that David may be suffering from some form of PTSD (this fear is mostly rooted in pop culture stereotypes rather than any substantial evidence, but Spencer isn't the most rational man in the world). Their teenage children Anna (an excellent Maika Monroe, It Follows) and Luke (Brendan Meyer, Tooth Fairy) are both casually intrigued by David, but for different reasons: the former finds him sorta attractive, and the latter finds him kinda badass.
Almost every part of the film's aesthetic screams “1980s horror/thriller,” particularly in the music department: a blatantly Carpenter-esque score accompanies much of the film's first half, and all sorts of dreamy synthpop is strewn all over the second half (it's not just retro self-indulgence - a mixtape made by one of the characters is turned into a tuneful plot device). However, the actual story being told here is a much more old-fashioned sort of thing. The Guest's “strange man with a dark secret comes to town” tale harkens back to the thrillers of the 1940s, when movies like The Stranger and Shadow of a Doubt ominously suggested that killers and Nazis and other boogeymen might be living among us (the format was also used for a number of “Red Scare” flicks produced during the 1950s). This updated take on that sort of story isn't quite as dazzling or haunting as Park Chan-wook's intoxicating Stoker, but a silver medal is nothing to be ashamed of.
The film was directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, who previously collaborated on the fiendishly clever horror film You're Next. Like that movie, the film offers an abundance of callbacks to pre-existing works while also managing to establish its own uniquely memorable story and tone. Wingard and Barrett seem to have a knack for recognizing what people love about old genre flicks (particularly violent '80s movies) while also understanding a need to transcend some of the less interesting conventions of many of those films. The characters here are largely well-developed, and the slow-burn journey of the film's first half is never permitted to feel like filler designed to kill time until the violence starts.
Truthfully, I slightly prefer the more restrained first half of the movie to the pulpier second half. The third act certainly offers some of the film's most memorable visuals (including a knockout climax which owes an immense debt to Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai – again with the '40s thrillers!), but this portion of the movie is slightly bogged down by the introduction of a bonkers subplot that half-explains who David is and what he's up to. This is the only area where the film feels unsure of itself, as if the filmmakers aren't entirely confident of whether they're giving us too much or too little information. Either way, the information we're given isn't particularly convincing on its own and it's not quite tantalizing enough to inspire us to fill in the blanks. On the plus side, this subplot gives us an excuse to hang out with Lance Reddick (The Wire), playing yet another enigmatic authority figure.
The Guest has a lot of cinematic pleasures to offer, but Stevens' performance is the film's most pleasant surprise. Those who only know the actor from his work as the affable, wealthy Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey may be startled by his turn here. It's hardly a spoiler to say that his early charm eventually gives way to something considerably more menacing, but what's interesting about David is that he's only nasty to the degree that his mission (the nature of which I'll leave a secret) requires him to be. He's a gentleman, at least in comparison to a number of movie characters built in similar molds. People love him right up until the moment they realize they hate him. I don't know who David's mother is, but at least she can take comfort in the fact that she successfully taught her boy some manners.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Year: 2014