I have never watched the TV show Downton Abbey, but I know quite a few people who have, including my parents, and I know that there was quite an uproar a while back when (spoiler, I guess) a major character was killed off. The actor who played that character is a fellow by the name of Dan Stevens, and one of his first roles post-Downton was in a little movie called The Guest.
In The Guest, Stevens plays a man who shows up unexpectedly at the door of a perfectly normal family on a perfectly normal day. The family is the Peterson family, who are recovering from the loss of their son/brother Caleb. The man who rings their doorbell introduces himself to Laura Peterson, the mom of the family, as David Collins, and says that he knew her son Caleb in the army and was with him when he died, and that before he died, Caleb made him promise that he would look after his family and tell them he loved them, which is what David is there to do.
Laura is understandably taken aback by this, and when David tells her he should be moving on, she insists that he stay with them for a while. David initially resists (though not too much) but agrees to stay for a few days. Laura even gives him Caleb’s old room.
This is a basic plot setup, but if you think about it, it’s a plot that could go in any direction from here. The direction in which it ends up going is unexpected, and while I thought it was awesome in a twisted kind of way, I can understand how it might turn off some people.
After we meet David and Laura, we meet the rest of the Peterson family. These include Spencer, the dad, Anna, the daughter, and Luke, the younger son. David inserts himself into their lives and becomes part of their family unit. Laura likes him because he helps out around the house and because he reminds her of her deceased son, Spencer likes him because he makes a good drinking buddy, and Luke likes him because he’s kind of a surrogate older brother who beats up a couple of bullies who picked on Luke at school.
The only one who’s not really buying it is Anna. She knows something’s up when she calls the military base David claimed to be from asking for information and they tell her the man she’s asking after is dead. This allows some shady government types to get wind of the fact that someone might have information as to the whereabouts of one David Collins, or, perhaps more accurately, someone claiming to be David Collins.
Anna tries to warn her family that David is not who he says he is, but by this point he has managed to worm his way into their family so thoroughly that Anna’s parents and her brother don’t believe her.
Throughout all of this, there are warning signs. David’s preferred drink is a fireball (cinnamon schnapps and Tabasco sauce, which sounds revolting), which he pays for at a bar with a thick wad of hundred-dollar bills (“Cash is easy to come by,” he says smoothly when Luke asks him where he got it). He carves a jack-o-lantern using a butterfly knife, and he asks a guy if he can get him a gun (when asked why, he replies effortlessly “I’m a soldier, I like guns”). Most troublingly, Anna overhears him talking on his burner cell phone to a guy where he says something about how he’s lying low but there may be people looking for him, and a couple of people around town mysteriously turn up dead.
The problem is that despite these warning signs, the viewer can’t help but like David. He’s a charming, handsome guy, and there’s something very appealing about him.
Dan Stevens is fantastic in the role, and though I know he’s a Brit his American accent is good enough that I probably wouldn’t have guessed that he’s a Brit if I hadn’t already known that beforehand. He’s incredibly slick and well-mannered, and he’s as good at seducing the viewer as he is at seducing the Peterson family into believing that he is someone he’s not.
Also, there’s this scene (WARNING TO LADIES: INCOMING BEEFCAKE ALERT):
There’s a pretty hilarious bit of backstory to this particular scene, which you can read at the movie’s trivia page on IMDb, which you should really do because like I said, it’s kind of hilarious.
From this point on, I have no choice but to completely spoil the rest of the movie. Most of the time I try not to do this, but there are some things I want to talk about with regards to this film that I just can’t talk about without spoiling the movie’s tumultuous final half-hour. So, consider yourself warned: things are about to get spoilerriffic.
So one day, when David is helping Laura hang the laundry out to dry, two black SUVs full of men wearing body armor and carrying machine guns show up, asking for David. When David sees them, he promptly pulls out a gun and shoots one of them in the head. An epic firefight ensues and the Petersons’ home is thoroughly shot up. When Laura asks him what’s going on, he apologizes to her and then stabs her dead with a kitchen knife. He kills all of the gunmen except for one, then crashes his car into Spencer’s head-on and apologizes to him as well before shooting him dead.
Then he goes to the diner where Anna works. Upon not finding her there (the lone survivor from the shootout at the house, who turns out to be a military policeman named Carver, reached her first), he kills Anna’s friend Kristen and, with a look of regret, tosses a couple of grenades into the diner to take care of the rest of the witnesses.
He then heads to the high school, which Luke is helping to decorate for the fall dance, and where Anna and Carver have gone in order to find Luke, since Carver tells Anna that David has been programmed to not leave any loose ends and is systematically killing off anyone who might be able to identify him. At the school, David kills Carver and faces off with Anna and Luke, who manage to finish him off after shooting him several times and stabbing him several times with his own butterfly knife.
“You did the right thing,” David says to Luke. He gives him a thumbs-up, croaks, “I don’t blame you”, and finally dies.
In the aftermath, Anna and Luke are being tended to by paramedics, when Anna spots a fireman walking with a distinctive limp, just like David had been earlier after being shot in the leg. The camera zooms in on the fireman and, though his face is partially obscured by an oxygen mask, David’s killer eyes stand out. Anna shouts “What the f—k?” and the movie ends.
The Guest is a movie that defies easy classification. In my opinion, it’s a family drama/action movie/slasher flick/black comedy. I hope it’s not too weird that I find it darkly funny that David ends up killing like 20 people. It’s also sad that he does that, I mean, I liked the Petersons. They were a little clueless to be sure, but they were good folks, and I felt bad when David murdered the parents. Although I was also chortling in a Holy-shit-is-this-actually-happening sort of way.
I also liked how the movie takes certain tropes and turns them upside-down. In most movies, when government agents unexpectedly show up and try to kill somebody, it’s because they, the agents, are evil, and are trying to kill the protagonist for their own nefarious purposes. But in this movie, the agents are actually the good guys and are there to kill David because he actually is a dangerous psychopath. I love that because it is the exact opposite of what the viewer expects, and it’s refreshing to see a movie go in a direction that is completely different from the one you expect.
It can be a bit jarring when a movie tries to juggle as many different genres as this one does, but in my opinion it worked really well. The pacing is very good as the movie barrels towards its spectacularly violent conclusion, and is helped along by a funky retro soundtrack that gives the movie a kind of throwback 80’s vibe which I really liked.
I also really liked the ending. It’s a classic horror movie twist ending that pulls the rug out from under you, where it turns out the killer ISN’T ACTUALLY DEAD AND HE’S STANDING RIGHT BEHIND YOU. I can understand how such an abrupt ending would tick off some people but I just loved the sheer audacity of it. I also liked how the film’s story gave some explanation for David’s incredibly violent behavior, while still leaving his character open to interpretation, which ensures that David remains mysterious and doesn’t turn into just another Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees clone.
The movie was written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, whose previous collaboration was a slasher flick called You’re Next, which is one of the best names for a horror movie ever. I kind of want to see it now because I liked The Guest so much, even though I don’t usually go for slasher flicks. But Wingard and Barrett clearly know what they’re doing, and I think we can expect some really cool stuff from them in the future.
The Guest is a movie that won’t appeal to everyone but if you have an idea of what you’re in for and keep an open mind, you might really enjoy it. I did.