Set during Halloween, Adam Wingard’s 2014 film The Guest may be confusing. That’s not meant in a “it’s so deep and mysterious, people don’t get it” kind of way; it’s that the film teeters between thriller and horror, ultimately providing more chills than actual terrors. The film has definite mad science elements, moody music, and an uncomfortable atmosphere, but I can’t say it’s at all horrific. Still, it’s strangely grouped together with more standard horror fare — especially this time of year. Really, it’s got to be the Halloween setting.
But despite that a lot of us don’t exactly know how to categorize The Guest, the film itself is much comfier in its own britches. Every part of it exudes a confidence that leaves the viewer not wanting to change a damn thing about it. Honestly, that’s saying a lot given the mobs of armchair filmmakers we traverse through daily on social media. You know the type: those who post at length about how they would’ve done something differently and thus made the film like, so much better. Well, to that I say: ditch the keyboard and pick up a camera, my dudes.
I’m here to talk about confidence, though, so let’s not get too distracted. This is a “Weird Boner,” after all.
First, let me say this. The Guest has a reputation among straight women, many of whom (myself included) are self-proclaimed feminists, as being “the movie” with Dan Stevens. As in, “the movie with Dan Stevens coming out from the shower with nothing but a towel barely draped around his pelvis.” As in, “the movie with a very fit, basically naked Dan Stevens that awakens a perhaps dormant instinct and causes a carnal reaction that goes against fairness and equality standards that should be advocated by feminists to fight sexism in all aspects of life.” I honestly don’t blame us, though; Dan Stevens is by all accounts quite the attractive man, and given how at the time we were all so used to his comparatively doughy appearance on Downton Abbey, the shirtless scene in The Guest was a real shocker. I just find it funny and ironic how easily we succumb to the “female gaze” and look at him as if a local butcher packed him up in brown paper and twine and personally delivered him to the set of this movie. Especially since the character he portrays embodies so much of what we as a society today say we don’t like about men.
About that, though: are we lying? I can’t really say. But just about every conversation I’ve had about “toxic masculinity” has set forth certain behavioral guidelines for men, and most of them do not allow for a wildly aggressive, weapon-toting ex-soldier who is quite likely a rogue government science experiment gone wrong to be registered as desirable. Yes, this man may put our lives in danger, and while that can be exciting, we say we want stability. We say we want sensitive men in tune with their feelings, men who are willing to work with us and abide by our needs sometimes, too. We say we want men to show vulnerability and compassion and heart, which are things that only a couple of generations ago would have gotten a man ridiculed by his peers. Yes, it’s refreshing that men are now tapping into characteristics traditionally unseen that make them emotionally stronger and more grounded. But while all those traits are surely attractive and desired, frankly, they’re not…masculine. And unfortunately, we have tired out the conversation about toxic masculinity so much that, to some, even “masculinity” by itself has become a dirty word.
So why is an obviously dangerous, bona fide anti-hero like David Collins — who personifies all the masculine characteristics we apparently now find so appalling — actually so appealing to women? In true “Weird Boner” fashion, why would we be so attracted to those things we say we hate? Hey, let’s go back to confidence.
A confident man is comfortable in his own skin. The stigma against traditional attributes of masculinity such as sexuality, aggressiveness, competitiveness, and persistence has caused some men to try to block those traits out of their personal sense of self altogether, which in turn, can cause those qualities to become unchecked within them. Think of it akin to consistently ignoring and bottling up our emotions, when one little trigger can cause a terrible eruption. But if a man accepts that he is a competitive guy, for example, he can more easily understand when and how competitive behavior may be appropriate, and can better curb said behavior if it becomes problematic. This recognition and ability to exercise self-control over perceivably bad behaviors is partially what we first find so attractive about men like David. He drips with confidence! Throughout the first half of The Guest, there are scenes in which David exhibits this kind of self-awareness and control, which are arguably his best character moments. Of course, when we reach the last act of the film, that’s when these things go a little, shall we say, off the rails. David slowly morphs from a polite, mysteriously sexy stranger to a cold-blooded, calculated killer. So again, why are we so turned on?
Alright, I already acknowledged the shirtless scene. When we’re talking about sexuality in The Guest, it’s impossible not to. The raw sexual energy Stevens emits as David even in that short moment is unmistakable (today we might call it “big dick energy”). And he doesn’t even do anything but stand there! This is the first real hint we get of Maika Monroe’s character of Anna Peterson having any sort of attraction to David, a tacit attraction that we see a few times more. For a while, it seems Anna acts bashfully flirty around David (she’s smitten when he compliments her mix CD, “I could make you one..if you wanted,” she says sheepishly), even though she has a boyfriend. These “crush feelings” are of course what’s exciting; when a man is confident enough to give us genuine compliments that feel unique to our being — and does it in such a way that isn’t needy or desperate — we feel both desirable and desired. In the same scene, David confesses to Anna that “if I had a girl like you at home, I wouldn’t have gone to the Middle East to get shot at.” David states plainly how he feels, and isn’t wishy-washy when throwing out even the softest of compliments. And, in turn, Anna’s self-esteem boost is undeniable. Whether we want to admit it or not, a confident man helps us feel secure in both ourselves and our relationships, especially when those feelings are expressed in an encouraging, healthy way.
But what Anna initially feels for David definitely falls within harmless crush territory. It’s her friend Kristen (Tabatha Shaun) who actually gives in to David’s animalistic charms. When Kristen’s ex-boyfriend shows up at her Halloween party, he’s obviously angry that she didn’t invite him and acts excessively possessively towards her. David basically does the “is this guy bothering you?” move and smashes his head into the wall. Kristen is visibly turned on by this arguably heroic display of male aggression, rewarding David’s violence by escorting him to her bedroom.
One would think violence is a strange thing to reward. By most accounts, we say we don’t need a man to save us, or to fight our battles for us, but in circumstances in which men clearly show signs of traits like protectiveness, we actually seem to be pretty okay with it. We can look at what’s referred to as benevolent sexism, a relatively new concept in gender studies that says that when men exhibit old-fashioned, chivalrous behavior like opening a car door for a woman or picking up the check on a first date, many women perceive that behavior as undermining or patronizing. However, studies have shown that despite those drawbacks, women (including feminists) find men who present that kind of subtle chivalry more attractive than those who do not. We can attribute the phenomena to the very real theories of sexual selection and parental investment; plainly, if a woman perceives a man as a provider or protector, the enticement likely stems from her innate desire to successfully achieve reproduction and subsequently care for her offspring. So when Kristen and David are in bed together and Kristen expresses disappointment that he’s not exactly at performance level (“Seems like you’re not really into this,” she says), that disappointment may not only be due to a denial of immediate sexual pleasure, but of “maybe this guy isn’t an ideal mate after all.”
But wait a minute. At that moment, David immediately takes command again, aggressively turning her over and growling, “Well, I am.” Kristen giggles, the scene cuts, and we can only assume the two have participated in some very powerful sex. Again, it goes back to desire. Many women who take on a submissive role in their sexual relationships do so not because they are meek, as pop culture may have us believe (think: Fifty Shades of These Are The Dullest Movies Ever Made About Sex). It’s not necessarily about letting a man have power over us but finding delight in how we actually have power over them. Letting a man roughly flip us over in bed (as David does to Kristen) makes us feel desirable in an almost transcendent sort of way: we control him by making him want us. These kinds of consensual encounters put us back in command of our sexual selves. So honestly, why wouldn’t we want to be with an aggressive man?
As an ex-soldier, probably the biggest display of aggression David subjects us to throughout the film is gun violence. David came to the Petersons’ house because he was Army buddies with their deceased son, Caleb. David’s claim is that right before Caleb passed, he promised he would go to them, tell them how much he loved them, and do whatever he could to help care for and protect them. We know this isn’t outlandish, as it’s a pretty common occurrence in military movies and therefore must be true-to-life, but as The Guest progresses, we get the idea that David’s motivations may be a little more sinister — or at least, a bit off-kilter. As David learns more about the Peterson family, he takes clues from how they speak about the other people in their lives and uses them to, in his mind, help make their lives better. Dad complaining about his boss? Kill the boss and make it look like a domestic dispute. Anna having small problems with her boyfriend? Frame the boyfriend for a murder he committed himself. Brother Luke getting beat up at school? Pound the shit out of those bullies. Strangely, in all these occurrences, the violence is charismatic, even if it does give us pause.
Before we move on, though, we should probably ruminate a little on the possibility of healthy aggression. Take note: aggression and violence are not necessarily tied. Aggression can simply mean determination, and as such, is not combative. David uses his aggression to push events into an outcome he desires (although, yeah, maybe he goes a little overboard in that final act, what with basically being a millennial update to the Universal Soldier program). In the business world, we call this assertiveness. Assertive people tend to be the leaders in any given situation; it’s a natural social hierarchy that affirms those who are the best at getting things done are more likely to be at the top. Where it gets confusing is when we bring terms like “alpha male” into the discussion.
We typically buckle to the idea of alpha males although they don’t exist in the ways we think they do. Even though we are highly susceptible to the hierarchy of social dominance, science says alpha behavior is actually not present in humans. Simply, there’s just too much context in human relationships to be able to classify anyone as a definite alpha. For example, one guy might be the loudest, most domineering gatekeeping voice on Film Twitter, but at his job, he cowers if his boss even glances in his direction. The socially accepted way we classify males as alphas is a somewhat modern method of looking at male behavior, starting with Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics, published in 1982. The book draws comparisons between chimp and human behavior, but mostly his studies were trying to point out that, like humans, apes are capable of cooperation and empathy. Taken to a different, more gross length, the myth of the alpha male was later given new life by con artists — excuse me, pick-up artists — like Neil Strauss, who, in his book The Game, insisted that women only want to date alpha males, giving seedy men the world over permission to form social groups like the seduction community. Seriously, I need to wash my hands just for typing that, let alone linking to it.
So it’s probably safe to say that our typical association with the term “alpha male” is what turns us off; it’s that sleazy idea of the pick-up artist, the Frank “T.J.” Mackeys of the world, that sends us into the other direction. However, when a man who could be considered an alpha (like David Collins) conducts himself in a perceivably helpful, confident, and assertive way (i.e., healthy aggression), we raise our eyebrows. David is calm and direct in the local redneck dive bar when he orders a round of blow job shots and cosmopolitans for the kids who have been picking on Luke at school, and retains that collected demeanor when one of those bullies throws the cosmo back in his face. The demonstration of violence (toward minors!) that comes next is gruesome, but David is acting how he thinks righteous men act — and many of us are inclined to agree. When aggression is used to stick up for the little guy, to defend the rights of friends or loved ones, not only are we more likely to find it excusable, we’re more likely to find it charming. For instance, David “negotiates” with Luke’s school principal after Luke assaults another student who was bullying him. Luke’s set up to be expelled due to the school district’s zero-tolerance policy regarding violence, but David turns the tables by suggesting the Petersons sue the school because Luke was defending himself against a hate crime (he had been called a “faggot” and then stuck the sharpened pencil in that boy’s neck). Even though Luke’s sexual identity is never actually addressed in the film and we’re led to believe maybe David just made that up on the spot to prove a point, David’s quick thinking and assertiveness with the intention to right an obvious wrong (especially one done to a child), is nonetheless massively appealing.
So now let’s return to my hypothesis of keeping unconditional masculinity in check. If The Guest ultimately shows us anything, it’s that acting within restraint is key. David is, after all, Luke’s role model. David is definitely an extreme example of what women might want in a mate, but the lessons Luke can learn from David’s apex behavior about how to successfully combine confidence and aggression with other traits like compassion and empathy serve as an example of what women might want in a partner (as a society, we still consider “manly” men as having the “good genes,” and again, it comes down to reproduction. Women are typically most interested in ultra-masculine men during ovulation. We innately want the goods for short-term relationships — i.e., a one-night stand — whereas when we’re in it for the long haul, we look toward men who exhibit softer, more emotionally palatable tendencies.). The things David teaches Luke help him hone in on certain survival skills that are beneficial not only physically, but introspectively. Sure, David gives some crazy advice (he says, “Never let anybody pick on you, otherwise you’ll carry it with you the rest of your life. Those kids at school, they’re bigger than you? Then bring a knife to school. They take it off you and beat you up, you go around to their houses at night and burn them down with their families inside. What’s the worst they can do?”), but that advice does encourage Luke to be quite a bit more daring in situations where he has to defend himself or a loved one. Luke was passive at the beginning of the film, letting his aggressors get the best of him, but by the end of it, his confidence has built up enough that he doesn’t hesitate when faced with using righteous violence to save himself and his sister from the now purely malevolent force that is Rogue Soldier David Collins. There’s a cute moment, too, as David is dying, where he offers Luke his approval: “You did great,” he says, giving Luke a thumbs up. “I don’t blame you. Don’t feel bad.”
So, is David the perfect man? Nah. But he can serve as an inspiration in some ways to men who are struggling with their masculine identities. Again, the answer lies in knowing the difference between healthy masculinity and toxic masculinity, and not lumping one in with the other. Truly strong men understand that a certain level of aggression is necessary to achieve goals and act in self-assured ways, not self-centered ones. Confident men take risks and are driven. They make clear decisions, and understand their vulnerability as a sign that they are undeterred by rejection. Women do have those animalistic urges to briefly be with “alphas” like David, but we’re also savvy enough to determine when those feelings are fleeting. And now, I think we might know why.
You know, this film itself is confident. I’m not entirely sure I could say that with much else in Wingard’s filmography; most of his other work seems like duck soup in comparison. Maybe, though, it would help me to think of it as a string of boyfriends: one of them is highly impressionable whereas the rest are just, well, nice. But The Guest? Yeah, it leaves me feeling weird and cool and sexy, even if I’m also left a bit confused at those feelings. So perhaps Anna’s last line of “what the fuck?!” when she thinks she sees David dressed in a firefighter outfit milling about their rescue scene directly before cutting to the credits couldn’t have been better said. ★