The Guest is a faithful movie translation of Harold Pinter's play The Caretaker. Although this is one of the least cinematic plays ever written, someone wisely decided to get it down on film with two of the magnificent actors from the New York production.
Pinter performs the feat of engaging one's attention without any real personal conflict or continuity of action. The language itself contains no precise dramatic or psychological meaning. This movie would have been almost the same in Polish, without subtitles. That of course is the point of the movie, which concerns three people alive in their various fashions, in and out of a furniture-crammed room.
Donald Pleasence, as the monumentally disgusting bum Jenkins ("That's my assumed name"), is the best reason for seeing the movie. Alan Bates and Robert Shaw, as the mysterious brothers who own the room, are two other excellent reasons.
The characters do say things which describe them as people. But they are so boxed up with themselves and blunted by past obliviousness, that they expect little sympathy and give none. Each character cherishes a scheme which will somehow give birth to his personality: one brother has a minute plan for decorating the room, the other wants to build a shed out back, and the bum is always about to go down to Sidcup to get the papers that prove who he is. The bum feels called upon to assert his sanity by bursting into prideful indignation at vaguely appropriate moments. His finicky concern about his shoes, especially, reminds one of the bums in Waiting for Godot. He can't remember his birthday.
Pinter's juxtaposition of these three oddly assorted men in a room serves to generalize their dilemma. But in showing his characters failing to get across to each other, failing to see any reflections of themselves in the world, Pinter also seems to express reverence and amazement toward the mysterious internal drives that keep them going.
Clive Donelly's direction becomes stilted and overdone in its efforts to keep the action visually diverting. He falls back on the English Diagonal School of photography, which keeps framing the actor with chair legs, room corners and other straight lines. The size of the room strictly confines movement, and Donelly uses a flat lighting throughout. The few excursions outside the room seem to be stuck in mainly as a reminder that cameras do such tricks.
The characters do in fact stand in important relation to the objects in the room--they cleave to them as another form of expression or substitute for personality. But the framing technique merely uses objects as convenient visual elements. And although close-ups coerce the attention better than any stake device, they imply a kind of psychological familiarity with the characters which the script doesn't provide. Close-ups do magnify Pleasence's incredible range of facial contortions. But a collective stage view served Pinter's ends better.
This movie could use an intermission. It seems very long because it has nothing within it to signify the passage of time: nothing anticipated, nothing remembered. But it is never boring.