Don’t invite over ‘The Guest’

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Carrying a duffel bag, David Collins (Dan Stevens) arrives unexpectedly at the New Mexican home of the Peterson family. Laura (Sheila Kelly), the grieving mother of a soldier, Caleb, who was recently slain in Afghanistan, answers the door.

David claims that he is a discharged Army veteran, who had served with Laura’s son. David claims to be fulfilling Caleb’s dying battlefield wish. He advises the bereaved mother that he had promised Caleb that he would look in on his family and make sure that they were alright.

David demonstrates ultra-polite manners, persistently responding to Laura’s questions with a litany of carefully couched, “Yes ma’m” and “No ma’m” responses. As evidenced by the fact that Laura succumbs to David’s unctuous charm, she apparently never watched “Leave It to Beaver” on television. I kept on expecting David to offer this help with washing the dinner dishes in quintessential Eddie Haskell style. Laura invites David to move into the Peterson’s home and stay in Caleb’s former room.

A screen capture from the trailer to the movie "The Guest" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cv70SzAa9zw

A screen capture from the trailer to the movie “The Guest” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cv70SzAa9zw

Caleb’s younger brother, Luke (Brendan Meyer) is a socially maladroit adolescent. Despite Luke’s insistence to the contrary, it is apparent to David that the black eye, which Luke is sporting, is not the result of accidentally walking into a door. David recognizes that Luke is the victim of bullying by his peers. David intercedes with decisive action to put an end to the abuse. Now, David has won over another member of the Peterson family as a fan.

Initially, Caleb’s dad, Spencer(Leland Orser), is skeptical about having a total stranger as a houseguest. After all, what do they really know about David? However, David eventually wins him over.

That leaves only Caleb’s 20-year old sister, Anna (Maika Monroe), reticent about David. When she develops problems with an abusive boyfriend, David once again steps in and plays the avenging angel role. Will that inspire her support?

Nevertheless, Anna continues to harbor a tinge of suspicion about this handsome guy with a penchant for violence. When dead bodies start piling up at an alarming rate under odd circumstances, it buttresses her concerns. What is going on? Is David who he claims to be? Anna does some sleuthing and discovers some disquieting facts.

The film posits that military officials would disclose classified information to anyone who bothers to make a perfunctory phone call. As anyone who has had been compelled to making a F.O.I.A. request can attest, it just isn’t that easy to procure information from the government.

Anna’s phone call triggers a full-scale intervention by an elite covert military unit under the supervision of a flinty eyed special-forces officer, Major Carver (Lance Reddick). Will they be able to act in time? Intentionally or otherwise, the film’s denouement, set in a fun house created for a high school dance, seems less scary than jocular. It is far from dramatically satisfying.

A newly muscled up Dan Stevens will make you forget the effete English aristocrat,  Matthew Crawley, who he had portrayed for two seasons of “Downton Abbey.” In several set pieces, he is convincing as a man of action with impressive strength, agility, and fighting skills.

The first hour of “The Guest” may keep you guessing as to what’s going on. That is unless you are familiar with the pedigree of the film’s screenwriter, Simon Barrett, and director/editor, Adam Wingard. They previously collaborated on “V/H/S” and “You’re Next,” two horror films with inclinations toward gore. Admittedly, “The Guest” embodies a tad more psychological nuance than their antecedent work. However, the film remains deficient in providing anything more than a rudimentary back story for its protagonist.

“The Guest” pays homage to genre films of the ’70s, evoking the works of John Carpenter from that bygone era. The electrosynth score by Stephen Moore contributes to the mounting tension. The film broaches a subplot, involving a rogue government program. However, this potentially interesting storyline remains woefully underdeveloped.

Although “The Guest” shows some early promise, it quickly devolves into a garden variety action thriller, devoid of any nuance or a satisfying denouement.

“The Guest”  ** ½ R (for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality) 99 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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