For most of The Guest, the script doesn’t matter. Either the acting or the filmmaking carry the scene. The first act is this fairly standard, fairly obvious—albeit beautifully produced—drama about an all American family in crisis after the death of the oldest son, a soldier, killed in action in the Middle East. Dad Leland Orser is a verbally abusive drunk who also feels inadequate for not making enough money (in rural New Mexico). Mom Sheila Kelley is just sad. And dealing with Orser. High schooler Brendan Meyer is super-smart and mercilessly bullied. Daughter Maika Monroe works at the diner to save for college and has to hide pot-head boyfriend Chase Williamson from the fam. Then Dan Stevens knocks on the door—actually, Dan Stevens knocks on the door first and then the film establishes the family and really quickly, really efficiently. The strangest thing about The Guest having script problems is the plotting flows perfectly; writer Simon Barrett basically just doesn’t have any ending and he doesn’t have enough character development. Otherwise, the script’s good.
Anyway—Stevens. He’s the dead son’s comrade and he promised to tell each family member how much the dead son loved them. Stevens is just a good, nice guy, which is apparently exactly what the family needs. Kelley doesn’t have a son back so much as a pal. Kelley’s a missed opportunity. She’s a narrative prop, moved around for effective, but her performance is great. The film really doesn’t do enough with her. She’s around a lot but she doesn’t get any character development. She’s just sad about dead son and worried about her family. She also doesn’t have a clothes dryer, which is important later on. She and Stevens are really good together. Actually, Stevens is really good with everyone—Orser, Meyer, love interest Tabatha Shaun—except the one person it turns out he needs to be really good with—Monroe.
And it’s both Stevens and Monroe’s fault, but maybe more director Wingard and writer Barrett’s. Because eventually they at least need to have some spark and they never do, which seems almost intentional and a really wrong-headed move on the film’s part. So, eventually weird things start happening—like Stevens helping Meyer with his bully problem and Shaun with a pushy ex-boyfriend—and Monroe overhears Stevens on a mysterious cellphone call and just has to start investigating. Everything about that plot development is bad—anal-retentive Stevens having his super-shady but not super-shady at all phone call in hearing distance, Monroe immediately going Nancy Drew (the character’s written differently in each act), even the direction is forced (in the wrong way). Because first act Monroe is supposed to be crushing on Stevens, whereas second act Monroe is convinced he’s the devil and then third act Monroe is aware he’s the devil but operating indifferently to that belief. It’s not a good part for Monroe, especially not in the third act; the writing is just too thin. Also the film kind of dumps Monroe in the second act as she’s Nancy Drewing to follow everyone else. Well, the guys, not Kelley.
But it’s always an engrossing thriller. Wingard, who also edits, which seems right, knows how to present Stevens for maximum effect and Stevens is the whole point. Again, why Nancy Drew Monroe if she’s not going to take point but whatever; Barrett’s script has a lot of issues. Wingard’s got a tone he’s going for and hits it; making the film around any narrative issues for most of its hundred minutes. Steve Moore’s music and Robby Baumgartner’s photography are both excellent and enable that tone. If Wingard had been able to succeed with The Guest, it would’ve been something. But not failing is something too. Though having Stevens helps. And Monroe and Meyer and Kelley and Orser. The cast is right, the script is just a little wrong.
Also, Lance Reddick as Stevens’s former CO needs to be great and then isn’t. Reddick’s the third act surprise and it’s a flop.