When a soldier returns home from combat there is supposed to be a social contract. Their sacrifice should be respected and honored, certainly, but to what extent? The public displays of support belie the stigmas that dog veterans. All the pageantry and pomp that surrounds active duty military--the reunions during football or baseball games for instance--lives alongside the spectre of PTSD and other emotional issues stemming from conflict. Such is the weight of soldiers in our society that this is seldom treated as a setup for horror or thriller films. Despite the richness of the premise most filmmakers shy away from presenting soldiers as monsters lurking within their societies.
In The Guest, David arrives at the home of the Pattersons, the family of his fallen comrade and immediately finds himself in their good graces. Using nothing more than an “aw shucks” midwestern charm he becomes a guest of the family, sleeping in his comrade’s old room.
As “David”, Dan Stevens finds a role perfect to free him from typecasting in costumed romantic dramas. He boasts the low body-fat and angular features of Zac Effron, but pairs it with a deep scowl that could make him pass for Jack Nicholson in The Shining. He can switch between chipper to morose in a blink and has a casual way of setting up violence.
Tacked in the middle is a subplot that probably says too much about David’s backstory, but it allows for ample screen time for Lance Reddick now a familiar and steady presence in modern genre films. The main goal behind it may to deeply emphasize that David’s murderous inclinations are not the result of PTSD. That’s nothing this picture wants to tangle with.
Like most films dealing with soldiers the nature of service is sacrosanct. The Guest pairs with Bob Clark’s Deathdream, another film where a soldier returns from combat to terrorize a community entirely complacent and unperturbed by the violence committed in their names overseas. The Guest though leaves its thesis implicit, as opposed to Deathdream which lays it out in dialog. You won’t find any stated criticisms of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan here. The theme about the willingness to overlook violence when its done on our behalf builds gradually, largely without comment.
David’s violent manner is no secret in the film. He seeks out physical confrontation and tries to solve all of his host family’s problems with cold-blooded brutality. All of which is well and fine when it serves the Petersons. At one point one of the family realizes the extent of David’s crimes, by then extending to multiple homicides. Instead of going to the authorities he pledges allegiance to David, believing that this violence is for the benefit of his family.
In the end the Guest is blunt, but not clumsy. It hits its share of genre marks in a respectable fashion, but the tone is decidedly light throughout. Tension never quite reaches a boil even as the bodies start piling up and up. I realized watching this that in a similar situation other directors go the Scream-route in their films: filling the frame with pop culture and metafictional references. The Guest is entirely comfortable in its own skin and never really tips its hat to its genre forebears.