Like his anti-slasher You’re Next, Adam Wingard’s The Guest is about a person who isn’t what they appear to be. In this case, it’s soldier David Collins (Dan Stevens), visiting the family of a fallen comrade. He’s charming, polite, has a goofy half-smile and calls every woman he sees “ma’am” (complete with twangy drawl), and decides to help out the family with various micro-dramas (youngest son Luke being bullied; daughter Anna’s complicated relationship with a junkie boyfriend). For reasons which become clear late in the film, David’s solutions to these problems are often violent, and eventually murderous.
It’s interesting to watch David switch to the extremes of his personality. In the opening act, he’s friendly in social settings, but in private simply stares out a window, as if on overwatch–recalling Schwarzenegger’s Terminator in that grubby motel, gearing up to kill Sarah Connor. These shifts become more abrupt and nuanced as various situations develop, some of them obvious (a Kubrick stare which turns into gee shucks grinning), others subtle (a moment where he insists on driving). At first, David appears a sociopath, due to how he zeroes in on the emotional states of other people and changes accordingly. Anna (Maika Monroe), the only member of the family not completely endeared to David’s charm, even suspects this and investigates. The reveal, however, suggests otherwise–burying a PTSD metaphor under some minor sci-fi conventions–that perhaps David has been conditioned this way through training and conflict?
While Stevens, Wingard, and screenwriter Simon Barrett leave much about David ambiguous, one key scene reenforces this. Attending a party with Anna, David begins chatting with a friend of hers, hitting it off. The woman’s ex-boyfriend arrives, causing trouble. During the inevitable faceoff, Wingard cuts to an over-the-shoulder view: David on the far left, the ex on the far right, their gazes directing the audiences’ eyes to a framed photo on the wall. Tension simmers. In a blur, David smashes the other man’s head into the picture. KO. He then picks up the photo, hands it to Anna’s friend, and apologizes for breaking it. David’s instincts kick in, for which he feels the need to apologize. This repeats throughout The Guest‘s second half, his actions, and the body count, escalating to such a ridiculous degree he becomes exasperated.