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      The Guest Review

      The Guest poster

      The Guest

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      A pretty crafty genre pastiche until it stalls, director Adam Wingard's "The Guest" introduces its title character after he knocks on the front door of a small-town New Mexico family that recently lost their older son in the Iraq War. Door opens, a man's head is turned away from the camera ...

      .. And then, after a strange little two-second pause, he turns around and it's a dashing yet sinister Dan Stevens, of "Downton Abbey," here playing the role of a mysterious combat veteran who ingratiates himself into the family of his fallen comrade.

      Why has this handsome stranger come here, beyond paying his respects to his friend's surviving family?

      For much of its running time, "The Guest" plays an interesting guessing game with the audience. David (Stevens) is a steely dreamboat, and everyone in the grieving family uses him for different reasons. Mom (Sheila Kelley) appreciates his manners, his solicitude, the help with the laundry. Hard-drinking Dad (Leland Orser) is wary at first, wondering if David is psychologically troubled, but soon they're downing beers together. Also, for the man-candy benefit of the waitress daughter (Maika Monroe), David clearly has studied all the best fashion magazine ads, posing just so, stripped to the waist in a bathroom doorway, with the steam floating around him.

      Then, in the spirit of Alan Ladd in "Shane," he protects and avenges the bullied younger brother (Brendan Meyer) by breaking many bones of many sociopathic jocks in a brutal bar fight.

      Audience sympathies are intriguingly scrambled in "The Guest," and in the byplay between Monroe and Meyer, especially, we get a nicely lived-in sibling relationship grounding this low-budget thriller. But when the secrets of David's circumstances and motives start spilling into the daylight along with more and more blood, "The Guest" does a strange thing. It becomes flat-footed and a bit dull.

      In the film's production notes, director Wingard cites a double bill he once caught of "The Terminator" and "Halloween" as the film's inspiration. (The story takes place in early fall, and the languid climax takes place largely in a high school gym decorated fun-house style for Halloween scares.) Wingard's facility with violent action is uneven. But he certainly knows his recent film history, as proved by the film's retro synth-y musical score by Stephen Moore, which owes so much to John Carpenter's "Halloween" theme; it's charming and a little bit funny, like that two-second delay before Stevens turns around and introduces himself.

      MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality)

      Running time: 1:39.

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