The Guest ★★★½

“Left, right, right, left, left, right, left, then straight. Got it?”

We all have pet peeves of varying degrees of reasonableness. For example, I cannot stand when people pronounce the word “nuclear” as “nook-yoo-lur”—although on the scale of human wrongdoing it’s a pretty minor offense, it sends me into a rage-induced search for the nearest blunt instrument. Or consider my father’s driving habit of deliberately positioning himself in the lane farthest from the one in which he needs to travel as a turn or exit approaches. Seriously, if my dad needs to turn right in two blocks and is already in the right-hand lane, he will without fail force his way into the left-hand lane solely for the purpose of creating a last-minute lane-changing nightmare in order to complete his turn. The skin crawls with infuriation just thinking of it—but again, it’s not really such a terrible infraction.

Phoniness, on the other hand, is a pet peeve of mine founded in the most eminently sound thinking and supported by a lifetime of observation and interaction. No, not phoniness of the callow Holden Caulfield variety. And not phoniness of the type called for by good manners, the pleasant surface-level interaction between people who do not care for one another forced together in a professional or social setting. Those things might be called “phony” in the strictest sense, but they range from inconsequential to useful to appropriate. The phoniness of which I speak is something much darker and more troubling. The person without a center, the man who is whatever he needs to be in a given moment, feigning unestablished camaraderie with minor acquaintances, using social norms as a carefully perused textbook rather than as an innate sense of principles—a shell with no one real and distinct and identifiable inside. We have all met such a person, perhaps multiple such persons, through the years, and if history has taught us anything, it is that such individuals are not to be trusted.

Hence Anna’s (Maika Monroe) understandable reservation about David (Dan Stevens). He is alluring at first glance, to be sure: the piercing blue eyes, the sculpted physique, the quiet mannerliness. But those alluring traits all seem to be a façade lain over a machine. He knows how to present himself as human, but he resides firmly in the uncanny valley, more repulsive than convincing.

To Anna, this is obvious (her momentary weak-kneed acceptance of David’s toned ab muscles notwithstanding). To her family, it is anything but. Dad Spencer (Leland Orser) is passed over at work, promotions being captured by younger men, and just wants a drinking buddy to commiserate. Mom Laura (Sheila Kelley) is lonely and still grieving the loss of her military son Caleb and just wants someone to help out around the house and with the kids. Brother Luke (Brendan Meyer) is bookish and nerdy and bullied at school and just wants protection from his tormentors. David, having known Caleb in the service and fulfilling a promise to the dead boy to visit his family, is happy to adopt any and all such roles. He even plays discreet confidante to Anna, playacting another part in hopes of producing another satisfied customer.

Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett don’t really play with the notion that David might actually be a good guy, that Anna’s suspicions might be unfounded. Their homage to 1980s thrillers like The Terminator and The Stepfather is chiefly concerned with style and atmosphere, and so from the very beginning we are cued in that David is not all that he might seem. The music, the lighting, the dead-eyed glare that David adopts when left alone—all signs point to a troubled man about to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting family.

Unsuspecting except for Anna, that is. While the rest of the Peterson clan enjoy receiving the attention they feel they’ve been missing in their lives, Anna digs into David’s claimed background and finds that all is not as it seems. Medical experiments, secret governmental programs, arson, plastic surgery—David is, as telegraphed, a man of many secrets to be doled out bit by bit, providing somehow too-much-yet-not-enough exposition about our antihero. Barrett’s screenplay is best when it simply lets David exist as a sort of humanoid android, invitingly adaptable and discomfortingly volatile. Credit must go to Barrett for not over-explaining David’s background, but the lumpy explanation given seems so tossed off that one is tempted to construe it as a joke along the lines of North by Northwest’s “government secrets, perhaps,” but the explanation goes on for far too long to make such a reading plausible.

Also troubling is the intense stupidity of Spencer, Laura, and Luke Peterson. While playing on their grief as the relatives of a fallen soldier works to get the story rolling, their continued acceptance of David as Messiah, mouths hanging open like codfish while terrible things start befalling their acquaintances and evidence of David’s lies piles up like so many bodies, makes them a difficult bunch for whom to root. This is particularly true of Luke, whom the film presents as the smart one (he’s good at the school and the maths!), and yet so dim that he is happy to take David’s side against Anna despite overwhelming evidence of David’s dangerous, untrustworthy ways. When Luke shouts “David wouldn’t hurt us!” at Anna, one cannot help but roll one’s eyes at a creature clearly too stupid to live. No better is Laura, who follows David like a myopic lemming until it is far too late, then makes the extraordinarily dim-witted decision to betray David at the worst possible time. The Peterson family may have suffered great tragedy, but the greatest tragedy of all seems to be that they chose to breed.

And yet...somehow The Guest works, and awfully well, in spite of its problems (including a final revelation that has left me with feelings I have yet to parse, a rat’s nest of “awesome!” and “seriously?!”). Because Wingard and Barrett are openly concerned with mood over meaning, most of their film’s shortcomings fade away in the face of the fantastic atmosphere that they have created. An ‘80s-inflected score pulsates underneath the proceedings while David and Anna ratchet up their game of cat and mouse, leading to a spectacular final showdown in a high school outfitted for a Halloween-themed dance. The fog machines, mazes, and mirrors of the finale are delightful, managing to be both tongue-in-cheek and genuinely tense, and Wingard deploys some clever framing, including one shot with a fake RIP gravestone that is particularly enjoyable. (One might quibble with The Guest’s choice of ultimate hero, which seems to betray everything it has been saying about the characters up to that point, but it’s done with enough brio that the taste it leaves behind is not entirely sour.)

Crucial to The Guest’s success are Stevens and Monroe, each of whom is terrific. Not enough can be said about Stevens’ stoic-yet-charming turn as David, which involves not just his Paul Newmanesque azure eyes and ripped torso but also an economy of movement that is truly terrifying. There is not a wasted glance, a wasted turn, a wasted syllable in his performance, creating a believably monstrous man-machine hybrid that glosses over most of the script’s problems. Just as good in a less flashy role is Monroe, who endows Anna with a twenty-year-old’s residue of teenage angst and cynicism while uncovering both the naïvely romantic girl and the fortified heroine within. Like Stevens, Monroe delivers a great deal more information than the script alone hands her, suggesting all sorts of problems at home that help explain why the Petersons might be so willing to fall for the handsome stranger landed on their doorstep. One can’t help but wish that The Guest had focused even more squarely on David and Anna and these terrific performances, eschewing some of the periphery (though not eschewing Ethan Embry’s delightful cameo as an idiotic arms dealer).

Then again, perhaps there is only so much focus that can be placed upon a man like David. Cinema is uniquely suited to the story of a hollow edifice, as it cannot explore a man’s interiority in the same way the novel can. But for David, as for those of his ilk, interiority is a meaningless concept. There is no identity to be explored, there is only action and reaction and self-preservation. It’s like watching a video game character. Left, right, right, left, left, right, left, then straight—got it?

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