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Sundance 2014 Review: Lady Mary Would Not Approve of ‘The Guest’ But Less Stuffy People Will

By  · Published on January 20th, 2014

The Peterson family lost their oldest son Caleb to the war in Afghanistan, and the four remaining members have carried on in their grief. A brief respite comes in the form of an unexpected visitor named David (Dan Stevens) who served with the family’s son/brother and was with him when he died.

He’s come to share Caleb’s last words and to fulfill his promise to help the family in any way he can. Each member of the family finds a friend in David as he offers a shoulder, an ear, or a pair of fists. Mom (Sheila Kelley) needs consolation, and dad (Leland Orser) is having trouble at work. Luke (Brendan Meyer) is being bullied at school, and Anna (Maika Monroe) is struggling with a relationship she’s hiding from her parents. Luckily David has a solution for all of their problems.

The Guest bears a happy similarity to You’re Next in every way but the narrative. The tone blends between thriller and comedy, with a heavy tilt toward the latter, and not even the script’s multiple hiccups can’t deflate the film’s sense of fun.

Something is a bit off about David from the very beginning, but the family is too enamored of his assistance to see through the facade. Luke in particular finds a friend and substitute older brother, someone who helps handle the bullies in a spectacularly entertaining bar scene, but his blind allegiance conflicts with Anna’s growing suspicions.

Writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard follow-up their energetic and fun home invasion thriller with another entertaining mash-up, equal parts Visitor Q and ’80s action flick, and once again their lead player is an incredible standout.

Stevens, best known as Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey, takes the reins on the film early on and never lets go. Sure his eyes are twin pools of baby blue heaven just begging you to leap in for a swim, but his attitude and charisma are equally immediate. Speaking in a slow drawl he maneuvers his way into the family and their home with dangerous certainty, and while his words comfort his expressions portend something all together different. Even as things grow dark though Stevens displays an appreciation for the darkly comic undertones.

Once the action and bloodletting begins he manages with ease the transition between devilish charm and murderous devil. He shows a level of confidence in fight scenes too that bode well for his career should the BBC lose interest. The action in general is solid fun with a combination of gunplay and well choreographed fights, and while it loses its way a bit in the third act it’s never dull.

As with Barrett and Wingard’s last film, the comedy seems to take precedence over the dramatic thrills and details of the story. It works because the laughs are steady throughout the first half, but once they grow less frequent the film begins to suffer as the actual narrative can’t quite fully support it. The explanation as to David’s actions is as cheesy as it is underwhelming, and the scenes introducing it feel cheaply produced and incomplete.

While Stevens is the highlight the rest of the cast does entertaining work too including Lance Reddick and Joel David Moore in small roles. Meyer and Monroe hold their own against the more seasoned cast members, and they show good chemistry with Stevens both as friends and adversaries.

The Guest should appeal to fans of You’re Next in particular and fans of fun in general, but its simplicity and occasional dip in intelligence may turn some away. Even viewers who don’t appreciate the genre swirl should at least leave the film impressed with Stevens’ presence and performance. And eyes, obviously.

The Upside: Dan Stevens gives a smart and physical performance; first two acts are fun and funny; bar scene

The Downside: Third act is less charismatic and engaging; some dumb narrative elements; the reveal is underwhelming

On the Side: Ethan Embry has a quick cameo here, but you’ll probably only recognize him if you’ve also seen the recent Cheap Thrills (and recognized him there too).

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.