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Film in review – “The Guest”

The_Guest_Film_PosterIt’s always a bit of risk when the filmmakers go for “sexy/creepy.” There’s a push/pull dynamic in this film that seeks to draw the viewers toward a character who’s deliberately deceptive.

Dan Stevens, familiar to viewers of the popular television series “Downton Abbey,” plays the Guest, a man who calls himself David. He knocks on the front door of a family he’s never met before and introduces himself as a former Army buddy of their son who died in Afghanistan. David seems sincere and is unfailingly polite and respectful and certainly says all the right things to the still-grieving family (“he wanted me to tell each of you that he loved you very much.”) The mother, Laura (Sheila Kelley), is especially enamored of David’s disarming charm, to the extent that she invites him to stay at the house, a prospect not exactly welcomed by her husband Spencer (Leland Orser) or their teenage kids, Anna (Maika Monroe) and Luke (Brendan Meyer). Laura even invites David to stay in their son’s old room, and when the camera pans to his face looking sinister when he’s alone in there, we,too, are wondering if this guy is really who he represents himself to be.

Suddenly, this sleepy town begins to experience some head-shaking violence, which completely baffles the local gendarmes. The man who made regional manager above Spencer is suddenly found dead in his home, an apparent murder/suicide pact with his also-deceased wife; Spencer is over the shock sooner than you can say “I got a promotion.” Next, Anna’s drug-dealing, not-so-secret boyfriend is suddenly arrested “because of an anonymous tip,” and, not surprisingly, is found with drugs in his vehicle.

David continues to be winsome and low-key with the family, even to the point of picking up Luke from school, where he finds out who’s been bullying his son, and guess what: the bullies themselves wind up hurt. We’re beginning to suspect this David guy is “the Fixer,” the one who solves all the family’s problems by being so helpfully violent. In this, he’s a bit like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher character (miscast on the silver screen by Tom Cruise). He never loses a fight. And he seems to find one easily.

Anna is the one beginning to get creeped out, especially when she does some checking at the Army base where David says he was discharged, and her inquiry immediately raises an alarm that produces mysterious government agents in riot gear roaring up in black SUVs. (Jack Reacher, also, had some mysterious government former black ops connection, but at least they aren’t actively hunting him down.)

Of course, David on full alert and in commando mode is a force to be reckoned with, and now we’ve somehow made a left turn from home-invasion-drama-with-a-twist to old-fashioned gunfight at the O.K. Corral (Wyatt Earp and company enjoyed their bad dude reputation, also).

Dan Stevens possess enough natural charm to pull off this complex character and almost achieves a tongue-in-cheek self-parody when he’s chasing the not-so-hapless teenagers through the house of horrors on Halloween. Yes, there’s lots of homage to horror cinema, perhaps even too self-consciously. But Stevens has the chops to carry this dark action-figure role, keeping the viewer guessing about both who he is and what he’s capable of doing. Those, of course, are the basic questions that define us all. But not all of us are Fixers Without A Conscience.


Ronald P. Salfen is the minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.

 Click here to read an Outlook roundtable interview with film star Dan Stevens.

Click here to read an Outlook roundtable interview with the writer and director of “The Guest.”