The Guest (2014)

The Guest first published by Film4

Descriptive synopsis: In this darkly funny psychothriller, a returned soldier runs amok through the problems of a smalltown American family. Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way To Die, You’re Next) directs.

Review: “I guess we don’t need a living, breathing reminder of him,” says 20-year-old Anna Peterson (Maika Monroe).

Her brother Caleb was killed in the Middle East, and now a stranger, David (Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens), has come into town – and into the Petersons’ home – who had served in Caleb’s unit and promised the dying soldier to look out for his family. The charming and helpful David soon wins over Anna’s grieving mother (Sheila Kelley), sidelined father (Leland Orser) and bullied younger brother (Brendan Mayer), but as several locals die mysteriously, Anna starts looking into David’s background story, not realising that she is igniting a destructive powderkeg.

Here, as with their previous collaborations A Horrible Way To Die (2010) and You’re Next (2011), director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett combine a masterfully left-field take on genre forms with a sly insinuation of subtext and substance. On the surface, The Guest plays out as a Carpenter-esque thriller in the ‘bunny boiler’ mode, in a small rural town which, despite the size of the cellphones, appears to be stuck in the Eighties – and the settings (high school corridors, playgrounds, diners, even a Halloween-themed mirror maze) all scream out the film’s genre allegiances.

Yet scratch beneath this, and you will see a portrait of homeland America still haunted by its recent excursions overseas, and forced to confront the monsters that it has itself made of the young men sent abroad. So despite the Reagan-era references and trappings, this is very much a film for the post-9/11, post traumatic stress world, with the chameleonic David (portrayed with toxic charisma by Stevens) all at once its posterboy hero and its psychotic villain. The Guest is a living, breathing reminder of a painful and unfinished chapter in America’s recent history – but only Wingard and Barrett could make material of this gravity so much fun to watch.

Verdict: In Adam Wingard’s fun, genre-savvy thriller, the post-9/11 subtext proves the most insidious interloper.

© Anton Bitel