Stevens stars as David Collins who arrives on the doorstep of the Peterson family, claiming to be the friend of their recently deceased son, Caleb. David claims that the two men served in the army together and he was present when Caleb passed. Despite initial reservations, the Petersons take David in and he soon ingratiates himself with each member of the family with a mixture of charm and good manners. It's pretty clear from the start that there's something a little off about the Petersons' house guest and it's not long before that proves to be the case.
To talk about the plot anymore would spoil what is a constant surprise of a film, offering up twists and turns; some you'll see coming, others you may not. Simon Barrett's screenplay is a skilful genre mash-up, combining elements of small town horror and thriller with a vein of humour that could be none more black. Adam Wingard's direction deftly flits between them all, bringing a sense of domestic claustrophobia to seemingly the most innocent of proceedings whilst knowing when to scale back for some of the bigger sequences.
It creates a deep, foreboding atmosphere throughout the film as revelations are sometimes dropped casually into conversation and sometimes occur on screen. Wingard relishes the opportunity to shock and the film can turn on you remarkably quickly, producing a nice, unsettling effect that never quite lets you get comfortable. It's helped at all times by a fantastic soundtrack that adds to the John Carpenter-like aesthetic that influences all aspects of the film. It underpins the action beautifully, ramping up the tension to almost unbearable levels in some of the film's more violent sequences.
It also helps that the cast are all excellent; Leland Orser as the put-upon father and Sheila Kelley as the grieving mother may not get a huge amount of screentime but provide a strong emotional core. Their children, Anna (Maika Monroe) and Luke (Brendan Meyer), shoulder much of the important narrative work and do so well, particularly in their highly differing reactions to the presence of David in their lives.
However, this film belongs to Dan Stevens. From the moment he appears on screen to the closing moments, his brilliantly unpredictable performance dominates, creating a charismatic central character that is both fascinating and scary. It's in the smaller moments that it works to startling effect, a simple shift in his eyes or the sudden absence of a smile. He also plays for the broader comedic moments too; his line delivery of how to deal with people who pick on you is delightfully dark. About as far from Downton Abbey and Matthew Crawley as you could possibly get, it's a delight to see an actor relishing a role as much as Stevens clearly does here.
A nice surprise in more ways than one, The Guest is a taut, well-made thriller with shades of just about everything else in between and it certainly helps that there is a wildly entertaining performance in the middle of it all.
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