From battlefield to domestic terror: Adam Wingard’s The Guest

The hyper-masculinity depicted by actors such as Al Pacino in the 80s and early 90s looks antiquated to us today, primarily due to an embarrassing seriousness. New, millennial cultural sensibilities find the depiction of gangsters as the ultimate example of pure masculinity naïve and foolish, and contemporary filmgoers are awake to the necessity for transformation of characters like James Bond to court longevity. In the late 80s the tough gangster began to be overshadowed by the macho rogue cop, or the deeper characters depicted in action films by actors such as Tom Cruise who always managed to include a gentle flaw in their depiction of masculine perfection. These men were faithful to their women, good to children they wanted to spend time with and more often than not their spurious “survival instinct” was extended to their families and friends.

Now, in the second decade of the new millennium, we see the hyper-stylized prescriptive masculinity taking a new turn, wrapping itself in poorly made films such as the Furious franchise, with intentionally weak scripts, intentionally hyper performances and the adoption of self-conscious cliché masked as parody or homage. But the message remains ostensibly the same; that the man’s man uses the physical to defend himself, family and empire (against foes real and imagined) and self-defense (real or imagined) has an obligation and right to act outside of rule of law.

This we see in The Guest, a film that uses weak characterization, enormous plot holes and war time propaganda to defend its take on the hyper-stylized masculine. The Guest willfully offends the thinking male bored by the strange idea of the machine-like programming director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett seem to think men are particularly susceptible to. The film includes an offensive and simplistic take on post-traumatic stress disorder, a downright insult to the veterans who suffer from its terrible symptoms. The thin plot is an excuse for a display of the excesses of masculinity derived from war, the age-old propaganda that war turns boys into men, and if you have PTSD you gain super powers that are beyond all human comprehension.

This is depicted in heavy-handed style in the order and nature of David’s kills – kills for which he is excused through to the end. We first see him beat up bullies underage drinking in a bar, and second we witness him killing a man of adult age who avoided signing up for service due to asthma. “I have bad asthma. It makes it real hard to…” “Hard to what?” asks David (Dan Stevens). Just in case we have a shred of sympathy for this man who didn’t toss himself into a war zone voluntarily, he is depicted as a drug dealer justifying his inevitable kill. The unprovoked death between these two events, the forced suicide of an anonymous female who is found covered in bruises, is appropriately off-screen as is the death of her boyfriend. Its revelation to the audience by a weak character does nothing to move our sympathies away from David, despite the growing pile of dead bodies.

The manifest message of The Guest is that war makes a man out of you and those around you. It will equally prepare you for the violent and unjust battle at home titled “the survival of the fittest.” The assumption that contemporary depictions of males as complex individuals existing beyond the eat, shit, fuck, sleep mentality presents said males as powerless creatures, exemplified in Wingard’s depiction of the father of the family home, a man who is indicated as weak because he is faithful, passed over for a promotion, stutters under pressure, wears glasses and struggles with feelings of inadequacy which he articulates to his wife. The inevitable result of his poor masculinity is the bullying of his brilliant son (depicted as such because he can successfully complete his high school homework). This son, completely against character, comes alive in his “survival instinct” to physically beat his enemies when he is exposed to example. The characters of Spencer Peterson (Leland Orser) and his son Luke Peterson (Brendan Meyer) are the most offensively underwritten, the assumption being that a family man and an intellectual geek lack the ability to function properly in the workplace or the schoolyard and, even more alarming, lack the resources to properly learn these skills – skills the war zone would have inevitably taught them.

The idea that men are brainless programmable automatons is a strangely prevalent idea in mainstream cinema and more often than not is present to mask ineffective character development, unexplained leaps in logic and scripts suffering plot holes and numerous shark jumps. This describes the plotting of The Guest, including its Halloween symbolism that is clunky, tacked on and never fully realized. I won’t even start on the family matriarch Laura (Sheilla Kelly) whose every sentence is cut short by someone (anyone) and who functions primarily as a womb to explain the existence of her children, or her daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) who is dressed as a barely-legal porn actress whether she is going to work, a party, or bed.

The Guest is a thinly veiled call to arms, a depiction of antiquated masculinity using its ineffectual characterization and its poor plotting as a defense against its own ludicrous seriousness that it passionately believes in despite its faux pretenses to parody. Shamelessly exploitative and naively right-wing in its message, it can’t hide its thoughtless stupidity behind its attempts at a groovy trash-chic aesthetic that ends up being more of a vehicle for its feel good propaganda and a derisive insult to male intelligence.

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