Right from the beginning, we're let on to the fact that something's wrong with David Collins (Dan Stevens). The Guest, the latest film from the writer-director pair Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard (last year's romping You're Next), opens with a shot of him running down a dirt road in a rural landscape. It's a mundane scene, not unlike other jogging scenes that are meant to establish a character driven by routine. But then there's a smash cut to a black title screen and "The Guest" scrawled across it in an old-school purple font, complete with blaring grindhouse music. It's a choice that completely upends expectations, dramatically changing the tenor of the introduction. Wherever David is heading, it won't end well.
It turns out that he's just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. His destination: the house of war buddy Caleb, who died in combat, but not before requesting that David deliver a message to his family. He's greeted by Laura (Sheila Kelley), Caleb's mother, who is still heavily grieving the death of her son. Perhaps that feeling of bereavement is what causes her to request that he stick around meet the rest of her family -- moody daughter Anna (Maika Monroe); younger son Luke (Brendan Meyer), who faces relentless bullying at school; and down-on-his-luck husband Spencer (Leland Orser).
The ominous knell of the opening scene begins to bear out as David slowly integrates himself into the Peterson family, parlaying the reception of his brief visit into a longer stay. During that time, he concocts an elaborate (and violent) scheme to get back at Luke's bullies; tags along with Anna to a Halloween party, where he has sex with one of her friends; and sleeps in Caleb's room. Dan Stevens gives the perfect performance, exuding an oiliness that causes skepticism to arise from some of the Petersons, but a good ol' boy confidence that eventually mollifies those concerns. He completely exists within the pocket of the film's tone, stopping one step short of smirking and winking directly at the camera.
Wingard's previous film, You're Next, was heralded partially because it brought a level of a skill that elevated it above standard home invasion flicks. He brings that same technical mastery to The Guest -- when the action kicks in, it's always terrifically staged and coherently edited together. They're usually brief and infrequent, at least in the first two acts, but they make a strong impression. The film is a full experience too. It's not just that the shots are carefully composed, but there's also a wonderful atmosphere, thanks to the synth-heavy score and vivid lighting.
The problem, then, is that The Guest is slick but not tight enough. Those action scenes are so good that some of the material in between the kicking and punching and shooting falls a little flat. With a directorial style as precise as Wingard's is, Barrett's script feels all the more logy. Consequently, there's a reveal late in the second act that feels like it should pack an enormous punch, but winds up falling short. Instead of being a game-changer, it's just another incident.
Nevertheless, smart choices are made to save those flaws from completely tanking the film. Though the dialogue-heavy scenes are sluggish, they'd feel even more so without the excellent, self-aware humor infused within them. And though the late reveal doesn't have its intended power, it's a great excuse to add more obstacles for David to dismantle. The Guest is never better than in those last 20 minutes, which feature a few setpieces that are brilliant in their conception but even better in execution. Ultimately, the film doesn't feel like a full meal, but it provides a momentary jolt to the system in the way that a good snack can. Sometimes that's all one needs.