Adam Wingard uses close attention to sightlines and shot-reverse-shot editing to atomise and dislocate relations in a grief-stricken New Mexico family in their 2014 horror-thriller The Guest. The Petersons have lost their eldest son, Caleb, who has died in combat whilst fighting for the US army. The unexpected arrival of David (Dan Stevens), a charismatic and seductive stranger who claims to have served alongside Caleb, serves to accentuate and heighten the strain upon familial ties this tragedy has created.
The Petersons are introduced in isolation, fragmented around a kitchen table. The youngest family member, Luke (Brendan Meyer), appears in a tightly framed medium shot, looking away from his family, as his father, Spencer (Leland Orser), enquires about whether he is ready to leave for school. Throughout this sequence, Luke is shown to either be avoiding eye contact with his parents, Laura (Sheila Kelley) and Spencer, or looking warily upon whomever of them isn’t in direct communication with him.
A brief moment of physical intimacy, as Spencer kisses Laura protectively on the forehead, sets up a lingering shot upon Laura, which pulls in from a medium to something approximating a close-up. Laura is left alone, staring into the space that Luke has just vacated. This is a subtle conveyance of the loss she feels regarding her deceased son, a loss which animates the short jump in time to a close-up of a memorial plaque to Caleb, now the focus of Laura’s haunted stare.
Alone with her grief, Laura is suddenly confronted with David’s unexpected arrival. In the first significant two-shot of the film. David, whilst sat at the kitchen table, opens up to Laura about witnessing Caleb’s death. During this account, Laura’s attention is entirely upon David and he returns her line of sight directly, with a disarming intimacy that was noticeably absent from her interactions with Spencer and Luke.
Anna (Maika Monroe), Laura’s twenty-something daughter, is now introduced alone in her bedroom waking to the bubbling flow of her mother’s conversation with David. Anna emerges from her room in her waitress uniform, and approaches the surprisingly cheerful conversation with wariness. Here again a two-shot is used to demonstrate the physical, and emotional, distance between mother and daughter, as well as the strangely alluring presence of David upon the periphery of the frame. Their inability to look at one another directly is contrasted with the way in which David commands their undivided attention. As will be discovered, David is an external force that wreaks havoc upon the household from within, but he is only able to do so because the cords that tie family together have already been severed through tragedy.