A long time ago, back when I was a young, wide-eyed student taking a class on genre theory at Pitt, I wrote a paper about portrayals of weak females, and the eventual affirmation of patriarchy, in action films. Hindsight is 20-20 and I think its obvious that’s a bit of a reach to try to neatly bundle all action films into one category, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there’s a certain strand of this genre that deals specifically with externalizing, and solving, melodramatic familial issues through the brawn of its protagonists. Think something like Die Hard (broken marriage), The Italian Job (daddy issues) or even the indie-flick (with meme worthy feminist heartthrob Ryan Gosling) Drive (broken marriage and daddy issues). I also don’t think its too much of a leap to say that the women in action film are, more often then not, weaker than the men even when they aren’t your prototypical damsel in distress.
This small, indefinite precursor brings me to The Guest. I’m going to get my bias out of the way early: The Guest was my favorite film of 2014; I saw it early this year and was immediately relieved that I never put together an official best of list last year because I would have regretted not having it as my top spot (in typical fashion I also found Top Five and John Wick early this year and was entranced by both). I think The Guest is brilliant for a number of reasons beyond its entertainment value which, if I may add, is strong enough that just about anybody could enjoy it regardless of reading deeply into it. On the surface, what The Guest does so well is to mix up genres in a way that, as Bordwell would probably say, initially affirms before subverting the expectations of the audience based on prior knowledge.
To just stop here, however, would shortchange The Guest greatly. I think the easiest place to start in any reading of the film is through its basic iconography: the soldier coming home and the grieving mother. In most any example (or in real life, for that matter), this comes loaded as a sort of valiant thing; the boys are coming home, they put their lives on the line to protect our freedom. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that David is not the central family’s son, but a fellow troop who has come to pay his respect to the family. The grieving mother, lonely and upset (and against blue backdrops, I wonder why) suggests that David stays. From here on out, two interesting things happen; firstly, the biological father almost completely disappears until the third act. This is absolutely key because it allows the second point, which is David taking on what is almost the role of the surrogate father (kind of like Ryan Gosling does in Drive), protecting the family, especially the son (sort of like Ryan Gosling does in Drive, again), against bullies, bad boyfriends and more. David fulfills everyone’s wishes and saves a broken, grieving family just like the hero of any good action film would.
To its credit, the shift that is about to happen isn’t entirely out of the blue, with David doing such wonderful things as suggesting to Luke that if he’s beaten up he should go to his tormentors’ houses at night and burn them down with their families inside. These comments, again, begin to demystify the iconography of the action hero because, I mean, isn’t that exactly something that Rambo would do? But at this moment the audience is supposed to feel uneasy as to how predatory, reckless, and morally wrong that action would be. The spectators know that David is being ridiculous, even though in many ways he suggests the most stereotypical thing an action star could do to get revenge and protect himself. The audience, in this case, has begun to be forced to question the moral footing of the prototypical action hero as David’s hyper-masculinity seems like more of a threat than an actual answer. I don’t want to jump the gun here too much, but remember this idea at the end of the post because I think that, in part, this also suggests how this type of hero might be out of place in contemporary society, which will fit in nicely with the final paragraphs and discussion of Anna.
Getting back to it, though, The Guest diverges from its course soon, particularly thanks to its transition to embracing more of the norms of horror in the last act. I don’t think that its any small coincidence that David becomes overtly sexualized in the eyes of the daughter, Anna, when this switch begins either. To summarize the narrative, Anna looks up David, and essentially alerts the military as to his presence, which isn’t good because he’s actually part of a covert information, and David begins to wreak Terminator style havoc to protect himself and the mission. This whole switch is why I’ve referred to The Guest as the anti-Drive in the past. It’s not a knock on two films which I think have equally important things to say beyond their plots, but whereas The Driver goes on to first attempt to preserve the family unit, before just plain trying to protect a weak woman and child, David goes the opposite way and becomes the horror villain, literally destructing the family on his own. This is an absolutely powerful move because it takes the typical iconography of the soldier returning home and allows that stereotypical action hero to, for a moment, do what we expect him to do; to fill a void in the family and protect the weak, as evidenced by the way he and Luke interact.
Because The Guest blends horror with action, it essentially eradicates the notion of stable patriarchy, something that we take for granted in many action films. It does this on two levels: firstly, it takes away the stability of the family unit as the biological father is pretty much ineffectual at the beginning, disappears, and reappears in the third act only to be killed extremely fast. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the father is a weak figure that can’t protect his family. But that’s alright, because in many films we still have a second level of stable patriarchy to uphold, that of it as a social construct. In this regard, it is once more completely undermined in The Guest. This is accomplished by, once again, using the iconography of an action figure, one that is loaded politically as a protector, and literally having him attempt to destroy the family. In The Guest, male-strong systems just don’t work at all, be it biological or the surrogate protector, as David quickly becomes the predator. This sort of subtle, but powerfully, lack of faith in a masculine dominant social structure is actually quite unique, especially for an action film, and completely progressive.
Let’s wrap this up neatly by finally looking at the character of Anna; I think this is one other area where the film affirms the above point. Rather than having the qualities of being a damsel in distress, or a woman that needs to be saved by the strong action hero, she basically takes on the final girl role characteristic of many horror films. She’s a strong, independent agent that is the only one to truly question David’s intention, and the only one to demystify his character and expose him for who he is. It is due to her actions that the military comes along and David goes beserk. Rather simplistically, Anna pretty much kills the too good to be true, surrogate patriarchal system of the first half, and I don’t think anything more really needs to be said about that.
One of those beautiful little details about The Guest is the interchanges where we figure out that David basically had his face reconstructed before he visits the Peterson’s. Though he may have taken on the superficial appearance of the family protector, this couldn’t be further from true. In fact, it is up to Anna to literally prove what is beyond the very attractive face of David, which she does in one of the most forward thinking and entrancing films of 2014. There’s so much more to be said for how brilliant this film is (I have more thoughts on everything from the music to the set pieces to the lighting), but I’m afraid that’s all I have time for for now.