David Collins, Dan Stevens’ character in Adam Wingard’s new thriller, The Guest, would be about as far removed as you can image from Matthew Crawley, the agreeable young gentleman he played in Downton Abbey.
Well, apart from the issues of manners: David is faultlessly polite, overflowing with “Sirs” and “Ma’ams”, even while bringing destruction down upon the heads of the Peterson clan.
Lithe, predatory, and with some piercing baby blues, the British-born Stevens brings an easygoing Texan charm to Collins, who, supposedly freshly returned from Afghanistan, seeks out the family of one of his departed comrades. Despite initial reservations, David is invited into the family home and quickly becomes part of the family. Only their teenage daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe) has any real suspicion of him.
The Guest initially leaves David as an enigma to us: he’s a little too refined, too smooth; what’s his real purpose in being there? For the Petersons, however, he’s the perfect house guest: to the bullied Luke (Brendan Meyer), he’s the bad-ass older brother; to harried dad, Spencer (Leland Orser) a drinking buddy, someone to unload his worries to; to fragile mum, Laura (Sheila Kelley), a helping hand.
Between smashing heads and carrying kegs, David is the guy we all want to be at the party; even with a gratuitous towel scene, this is much a male wish fulfilment fantasy as female. However, beneath David’s controlled façade we catch glimpses of that thousand-yard stare. The film draws comedy from his hyper-effectiveness – is there anything David can’t do? – but doesn’t skimp on tension.
So effect is the domestic element, it’s almost a shame when The Guest has to get on with plot. Stevens’ calculated friendliness – the film might well be called “The Terminator who came to visit” – gives way to theatrical villainy. The third-act twist, meanwhile, feels like a contrivance and undermines David’s understandable (if somewhat sociopathic) agenda. We’d be happy to have him stay a mystery.
In the end, a Cape Fear-like thriller degenerates into an intriguingly stylised but somewhat lazy smoke-and-mirrors neo=noir slasher flick. As far as Simon Barrett’s script allow’, however – and well beyond it – Stevens’ performance is flawless.
Still, The Guest is never less than deeply enjoyable, and, if there’s any justice, it will be the vehicle to mark the emergence of a major new star.