It’s Dan Stevens’ smile that anchors The Guest, the darkly hilarious new film from You’re Next director Adam Wingard. It’s totally charismatic and handsome, but it also feels fickle and cold; his eyes are completely empty as he replicates emotions, endearing himself to anyone not paying close enough attention while revealing a detached and empty inner life. His character David moves so precisely and perfectly it becomes, over the course of the film, unnerving and weird where earlier it seemed attractive and confident. Dan Stevens brilliantly uses all of his natural charm to enter a kind of uncanny valley. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s kind, and he’s somehow deeply upsetting. David is the perfect American man and, as The Guest argues, that’s precisely why he’s so dangerous.
In the beginning, however, he seems to be the model nice young man. Ostensibly coming home from military duty, he goes to see the family of his friend Caleb who was killed in action. Almost instantly the entire family falls in love with his presence, his yes Sir’s and no Ma’am’s and general air of polite kindness, so of course when he sheepishly expresses the fact that he doesn’t really know where to go or where to stay, they offer their home to him. The only person who seems suspicious of his presence is Caleb’s sister, Anna, who is both attracted to and wary of this man who appeared out of nowhere to jut into their lives. Nonetheless, the family’s lives all seem to improve, with David directly and indirectly solving their problems in an almost sitcom-like manner. As his perfection only seems to grow, everyone besides Anna willingly overlooks the holes in his story and his stay there. Not so easily deterred, she keeps an eye on his actions, sensing some sort of abstract threat in him. After some digging, she finds out that David isn’t exactly who he says he is, and the rest of the plot spirals out from those realizations (which, for spoilers sake, I won’t get into here).
Anyone familiar with You’re Next would expect some sort of genre prodding, and The Guest delivers, albeit in a more indirect way than the home-invasion horror conventions You’re Next hilariously played off of. In a way, this is Wingard’s action film, but only just; although there’s some great genre jokes and wonderfully directed displays of violence, much of the film is more at home in its dialogue and family drama. It’s certainly hilarious, but there’s no jokes like the ones in You’re Next between A.J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg as bickering brothers who can’t stop fighting long enough to even come together while their family is being killed. Instead, it heightens Wingard’s deft feel for deadpan reaction shots and straight-faced absurdity, centering itself on Dan Stevens’ constantly impressive character work and bouncing things off of that. Essentially, he’s a caricature of the Perfect American Man, and watching him walk around this realistic setting is like seeing a cartoon try and integrate into society.
What makes the film really resonate, however, is the thematic undercurrent that Wingard constantly implies. If You’re Next was about upending notions of male competency in survival situations, then The Guest is about the dangers of American masculinity. It’s tempting and easy to call David’s actions later in the film some sort of mental disorder, an aberration, but that’s dishonest, and Wingard doesn’t allow such an easy, ableist answer. David isn’t “crazy”, and he never goes “off the rails”. Rather, he is just the logical endpoint of this kind of person. He’s calm, cool, and in control, and where he goes is exactly where he wants to be. Viewed a second time, his demeanor in the early goings shows its toxic, abusive nature; he manipulates this family through his kindness to get exactly what he wants, never having to ask for a place to stay because he understands how to wrap the emotionally vulnerable around his finger until they’re begging him to do what he wanted in the first place. He’s a patriot who served his country, and gained the skills in that to do, essentially, whatever he wants. He’s a satire of male privilege in western society, able to operate without recourse, playing itself off as protective and essential when really what it’s doing is killing and maiming. It makes sense that Anna, a young woman, is the only one able to see through his tricks, because more than anyone in the house she is the most vulnerable to western masculinity’s harmful effects. Her parents are too old and have already accepted this as the way of the world, and her little brother sees power in the violence and fear that David wields as a threat to get what he wants; Anna is the only one who can recognize the danger when it’s staring them right in the face. Like the best satire, David is reality pushed only slightly to make a point. Wingard asks, both hilariously and poignantly: when an entire society has grown up believing that, for some people, might makes right and the will to power is an ethical certainty, how can its juggernaut of a death train be stopped?
All told, such an explication makes the whole thing sound a bit heavier or drier than it is. The problem with so many “message films” is that they’re all pill, no sugar; Wingard knows how to make some of the most addictive movie sugar that exists today, without decreasing the potency of the medicine. The Guest is, from beginning to end, propulsive and a joy to watch. Every moment is given attention, from the smallest exchanges to the broadest action scenes, all of them working towards a common end (and almost all of them packed with more effective jokes than most comedies). With You’re Next, Wingard placed himself on the frontlines of genre directors to watch, and with The Guest he’s proven that he can go wherever and still retain the same unmitigated watchability. Here’s hoping his next billing is something general audiences get a chance to hear about; his movies are just too bang-up fun to not make that crossover.
Directed by Adam Wingard; written by Simon Barrett; starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser, and Lance Reddick; 99 minutes.
The Guest is currently available on Blu-ray/DVD Combo on Amazon.