Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Guest: Unpacking a Little Death and Destruction

The Petersons should have remembered what Ben Franklin said about fish and houseguests. Initially, the mysterious “David” is so handy to have around the house, he earns more than three days. Unfortunately, the suspicions of their twenty year old daughter will be fully justified in Adam Wingard’s The Guest (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

When Caleb Peterson was killed in Iraq, it devastated his family, particularly his mother Laura. However, meeting “David,” Caleb’s freshly discharged friend and fellow squad member, offers her some consolation. Despite his humble origins, David is so faultlessly polite and gracious, she immediately invites the former soldier to be their guest, for as long as takes to back on his feet. Her husband Spencer is rather put out by her impulsiveness, until he spends some quality drinking time with David. Soon only their daughter Anna remains uncomfortable with the arrangement.

Within the context of the film, it is easy to understand why the Petersons so readily embrace their guest, at the expense of common sense. After all, he seems to bring good luck. In reality, David starts clandestinely “lending a hand” to the Peterson family, doing the sort of things they always secretly wished would happen, but would never admit. Sometimes Wingard and his screen-writer collaborator Simon Barrett maintain some ambiguity, as to just what David did or did not do, but there is no question about his proactive approach to the high school bullies tormenting the youngest Peterson sibling. Even Anna warms to David, but plot contrivances will interrupt their mounting sexual tension.

The first half of The Guest is absolutely terrific, inviting viewers to vicariously enjoy David’s freelance friend-of-the-family activism. Let’s face it, there are times everyone wished they had a secret benefactor who could make troublesome people disappear, but without any knowledge or culpability troubling our consciences.

Frustratingly, much of what works in the first half is largely lost in the second. Instead of a Nietzschean super-man, we learn David is a veritable super-soldier, thanks to a clichéd top secret government program, following in the tradition of the Universal Soldier franchise and scores of similar b-movies. What was once a very sly thriller becomes a formulaic exercise in comeuppance for a Blackwater-like military contractor in a tiresome by-the-numbers endgame.

That is a real shame, because it squanders the intriguing performances and cleverly executed action scenes from the early acts. Formerly of Downton Abbey, Dan Stevens could not get any further from Cousin Matthew than the mysterious David, but he pulls it off (clearly after putting in his time at the gym). He commands the screen with his sociopathic charm. Frankly, his supposedly Kentucky accent often sounds weird, like he is speaking through a Vocoder, but it kind of works nonetheless. As Anna, Maika Monroe generates plenty of heat with Stevens, while maintaining a sense of propriety and intelligence.

The Guest has the right look and soundtrack to appeal to nostalgia for the 1980s action movies that inspired it. It is considerably more entertaining when it allows its title character to be a wildcard instead of a Terminator surrogate. Ultimately, it is a potentially great cult film that is undermined by a screenplay too intent on making statements. The first fifty or sixty percent will be recommended for genre fans when it eventually hits Netflix, but they should probably hold off when the whole uneven thing opens this Wednesday (9/17) in New York at the AMC Empire and Village 7.