In the opening of The Guest, a stranger pays a visit to a grieving family. “David” (Dan Stevens) arrives on the Petersons’ doorstep claiming to be a friend of their son Caleb, a soldier recently killed in action. Hesitantly at first but then more enthusiastically, they allow David into their home while he proceeds to clandestinely, often violently, “help out around the house.” He takes care of a school bully problem for young Luke (Brendan Mayer), cold-bloodedly arranges for the disposal of the drug-dealing lout dating teenage daughter Anna (Maika Monroe), and even manages to get dad Spencer (Leland Orser) that promotion he’s been stewing over.
So obviously something’s up with David. There’s no movie if he turns out to be who he says he is, and it’s not long before we find out that he’s an escaped test subject from a secret government project. Basically, the Petersons have their very own pet Jason Bourne. It’s an ingenious premise, but unfortunately one that’s ultimately squandered in favor of some rote chase-movie action beats.
Until then, though, the first two-thirds threaten to be a pretty sharp satire about wartime aggression and collateral damage, with this brainwashed SpecOps drone becoming a surrogate son to a family in mourning, subtly altering their lives for the better with the judicious application of violence against the “right” people. Stevens is terrific, calmly mixing a squared-away, laconic demeanor with equal doses of aw-shucks courtesy and sudden turns toward aggression.
The Guest is content to simply be a clever genre joy-buzzer rather than something more thoughtful.
It’s a shame, then, that when the military finally shows up to recapture him, The Guest drops its theme so that David can go on a killing spree, one from which even the Petersons aren’t safe. It makes no sense to turn this into The Terminator or Halloween, both of which director Adam Wingard has referenced repeatedly when discussing his film. Turning David into an archetypal unstoppable killer removes the irony inherent in the very American idea of the proper use of force, and pointlessly turns an intriguingly ambiguous character into a bland villain.
Still, the final confrontation is a satisfyingly bloody one, even if it is just a cheap thrill, taking place in a high-school gym haunted house, complete with an extended chase scene that deliberately toys with the famous hall-of-mirrors sequence from The Lady from Shanghai. If Wingard had been more interested in exploring his initial themes, maybe all those twisted mirror reflections might have actually meant something. Instead, by that time, it’s become clear that The Guest is content to simply be a clever genre joy-buzzer rather than something more thoughtful.