by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
The Guest chugs along like you know what’s going to happen. It knows you know. And it’s still one step ahead of you.
The film — directed by the You’re Next up-and-coming duo of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett — starts as a thriller so basic that it could be shrink-wrapped and sold at a Walmart in the clearance section. An Afghanistan combat veteran shows up at the house of a dead Marine buddy, whose family welcomes him in and lets him stay over, borrow the car and prepare dinner with their sharpened cutlery. But the veteran, David (played with a psychotic gaze by Downton Abbey nobleman Dan Stevens), is not who, or what, he says he is. And then people start dying.
“There’s a couple of abrupt tonal shifts …” screenwriter Barrett said during a recent stop through the Valley to promote the film. “One thing we were really trying to play with a lot was the idea of experimenting with character likability, and obviously I’m primarily referring to Dan Stevens’ character — you just love him and he’s so entertaining. We treat him seriously as a character, and his behavior and his reactions are consistent, and at a certain point, that becomes a darker thing.”
Stevens’ David, whose thousand-yard-stare requires a gun permit in a handful of states, slowly unr
avels, though the film has a sinister sense of humor that collects his unspooling psyche into bundles of dark comedy. The film ends in a Halloween maze with David as the haunted attraction’s resident ghoul, the monster that stalks the guests. Before that, though, David mops the floor with some brazen cosmo-drinking high school kids, he blackmails the school principal, and obliterates the male competition at a house party when his muscle come in lugging the remaining kegs. David is a murderous madman, but he has his charm, an aspect of the movie that is twistedly delightful, but one that audiences might have a hard time swallowing.
“We did a similar thing with You’re Next, where the movie got increasingly comedic as it went along, and climaxed with this kind of absurdist monologue,” director Wingard said. “You’re Next was a gradual progression. The Guest was much more of a 90-degree turn … As a viewer, that’s the kind of stuff I enjoy and find fun: when a movie pulls the rug out from under you, as long as it’s grounded in a reality with characters that make sense.”
I would argue that the David character makes little to no sense. He spends much of the movie helping people to only kill them in the last act. His motives are frail and without much justification. And the terrifying thriller he’s crafting is yanked from him in a military twist that deflates the The Guest’s more robust possibilities. But David somehow still works, if only because Stevens’ is so kinetically malevolent that he outshines the material. (Stevens was on the press tour, but sidelined by an illness and unable to speak with the press.)
“[Stevens] just kind of personified what you really want out of a mysterious character like this,” Wingard said. “He has to earn the characters’ trust to integrate himself into the family’s lives. So we wanted an actor that the audience already trusted to begin with. Their association with him is the polite, mild-mannered Matthew Crawley [from Downton Abbey], and so that association is what we’re kind of playing with.”
Wingard continues: “… Ultimately what we’re playing with is creating a character that we want to conflict the audience. We want to throw the notion of a hero or a villain out the door, and all you should be focusing on is ‘are you being entertained by this guy?’ Dan had all those aspects to him. He’s a very intelligent guy, he got the sense of humor of the script, and we already knew he could act.”
It was their first time working with Stevens, although Barrett and Wingard are frequent collaborators. Frequent enough that I ask them if they’re sick of each other yet.
“I would say the key to our creative process is that we actually know when to give each other a lot of space,” Barret said. “Like when Adam is editing, I stay completely out of the editing room, so that I can then bring objectivity to his first cut. Adam’s first cuts tend to be more polished than a lot of people’s final cuts … But that’s about two months that I just stay out of his way while he works, and generally I’ll take advantage of that time by writing. That’s one of the good things about our partnership — we’re doubly productive. When I’m writing a script, I tend to not show Adam any pages until I have a final draft, and I try to surprise him with the story and characters.”
Wingard agrees that the they function well together and apart: “We tend to not really just hang out on a casual basis that much, even though for awhile we lived literally next door to each other. When you’re shooting a movie, you’re around each other every day, and then you go on these press tours … so it’s not like we’re starving to hang out.”
To see these two hang out behind the camera, check out The Guest, which opened Wednesday.