Adam Wingard's The Guest treats American citizens like enemy combatants. This diabolical reversal provides a bracing commentary on how foreign occupations inevitably impact the home front, causing the kind of devastating blowback usually reserved for war zones in Iraq or Afghanistan.
It's not your typical post-9/11-era commentary about loss or duty; the film craftily tweaks genre conventions mastered by filmmakers like John Carpenter in order to create a false vision of home, an apathetic place where guilt and resentment are compartmentalized in a nicely sealed package. That is, until one particularly enraged chicken comes home to roost.
Sporting a devil's grin and Southern drawl, David (Dan Stevens) materializes out of the ether, strolling up to the Peterson home, claiming to be a friend and fellow soldier to their fallen son. Laura (Shelia Kelly), the matriarch of the family, lets him into the house almost immediately. Her husband Spencer (Leland Orser) only momentarily questions the stranger's motives before retreating into an alcohol-fueled haze. Teenage son Luke (Brendan Meyer) senses the violence inside David but feels empowered by it while 20-year-old Anna (Maika Monroe) boomerangs between attraction and fear whenever she interacts with him.
Every member of the Peterson family blindly confesses secrets and desires to David, making them easy marks for this charming wolf. He pushes the right pressure points to gain their trust, but his endgame remains ambiguous even when the film descends into narrative madness. The Guest often denies the importance of plot points, instead focusing on the gut-wrenching visceral imagery of a traumatic event rather than the explanation behind it. This will leave those viewers hoping for a coherent thread cringing in frustration.
Wingard obviously cares more about the way theme informs style. Many of the most nerve-wracking sequences are shot in rooms decorated by trinkets, pictures and medals. There's a pervasive claustrophobia that the characters don't even recognize. When Laura nonchalantly offers her dead son's room to David, it catches him off guard. They've just met him, but this zombie posing as a woman nonetheless opens up a private (and most would say sacred) place for a complete stranger to experience. What does this say about Laura—and, for that matter, her family collectively?
The answer remains cryptic as The Guest moves between genres almost religiously before ending in grand fashion as a full-blown war film set in Main Street U.S.A. The act of killing almost becomes a right of passage, a way to express dedication to family and friends no matter how warped the end result. Wingard owes a lot to David Cronenberg's A History of Violence in this regard. For both films, verbal expressions are false while physical acts of violence speak truth about one's base identity.
David's actions, while atrocious and often grotesque, represent a maximizing of military protocol that he's mastered while under pressure. "Kill or be killed" is elevated to absurd heights, defined by a mission no longer legible through rational logic. His reasoning is blurred, but his intent always remains potent. When The Guest turns insane during the final act, Wingard has a blast mapping out a final chase sequence within a high-school auditorium dressed up in Halloween decorations. Here, David no longer feels like a man but a variation on the Terminator, driven by a delusional vision of duty that still feels rooted in a reality not too unfamiliar.
Aside from Wingard's sneaky direction, The Guest—which opens Friday, Oct. 10, at AMC Mission Valley Cinemas—wouldn't be as effective without Stevens' enigmatically charming and sadistic performance. His devious smile, eloquent tenor and swift physicality make for an alluring if not upsetting cocktail, the personification of down-home Americana and resolve that feels so right but has turned so wrong. He's an invader of our own making who paints the welcome mat red.