Directed by: Karyn Kusama.
Written by: Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi.
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green (Will), Michelle Krusiec (Gina), Aiden Lovekamp (Ty), Mike Doyle (Tommy), Jordi Vilasuso (Miguel), Marieh Delfino (Claire), Jay Larson (Ben), Tammy Blanchard (Eden), Emayatzy Corinealdi (Kira), Michiel Huisman (David), Lindsay Burdge (Sadie), John Carroll Lynch (Pruitt), Toby Huss (Dr. Joseph), Danielle Camastra (Annie), Trish Gates (Follower), Karl Yune (Choi).
Spoiler Warning: The Invitation is one of those movies where knowing as little as possible before watching it will enhance your pleasure while doing so. This thriller/not-quite-horror movie takes some wonderfully unexpected twists and turns, and works remarkably well from beginning to end. You should see it. But you should see it before reading any reviews, including this one. While I won’t give away the whole game here, it’s impossible to talk about the movie without giving some things away, so if you read anyway, at least I’ve warned you.
In the history of movies has there ever been a dinner party where everyone just comes together, has a nice time, and then go on their merry way? No, My Dinner with Andre (1981) doesn’t count – that’s not a dinner party, they go to a restaurant. It seems like every time characters in a movie go to a dinner party, it ends up with critics describing it as the “dinner party from hell”. You can add The Invitation to that list as well. You know the dinner party isn’t going to go well from the first scene when Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) tells her boyfriend Will (Logan Marshall-Green) that if he doesn’t want to go then they can just turn around and forget about it. When a character says this in a movie, you know that a) they should turn around and go home and b) they won’t. To drive the point home, the conversation is interrupted when Will runs over a coyote, and has to finish the poor creature off with a tire iron to put it out of its misery.
The pair soldier on anyway. The dinner party is up in the Hollywood Hills, at the spacious house owned by Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman). Nobody has heard from Eden in two years – the son she and Will had died in one of those bizarre accidents that are really no one’s fault, but the parents will always blame themselves, and each other, for – and Will and Eden’s marriage couldn’t take the grief, and they’ve handled things in radically different ways since. Will has become sullen and introspective – he has basically cut out most of his friends from his life, and grown a beard that is part hipster, part lumberjack. Eden and David (who has a tragedy in his past as well), have gone to Mexico and accepted “The Invitation” by new age guru/cult leader Dr. Joseph (Toby Huss). They have invited all of Eden’s old friends over for a dinner party, under the guise of catching up and putting the past behind them, but as the film proceeds, it becomes clear it’s more of a recruitment session than anything else. There are two other additions to the old crew – the creepy Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) who seemingly stalks around in the background, and seems calm, but perhaps isn’t, and Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) who seems like she really wants to ne a Manson girl – her supposed free loving, hippie chic not doing a very good job of disguising dark intent.
Or maybe, it’s just Will be paranoid. He is, after all, still not over the loss of his son – or the loss of his wife, and he is returning to the house they shared for the first time in a few years, and it’s filled with memories and regret. After all, although David and Eden’s new religion seems kind of kooky – this is L.A., and kooky new age beliefs are nothing new. And David has an explanation for everything that rubs Will the wrong way – from his seeming insistence that everyone drink the wine, or why the door is locked, with a key so no one can get out, and the presence of Choi – the one member of the group that hasn’t arrived yet. David and Eden do have a goofy smile plastered on their face throughout – but perhaps they’ve just learned to except the past and move on – something Will has been unable to do.
The Invitation takes some nice twists and turns throughout the film, and keeps the suspense mounting throughout. Yes, John Carroll Lynch has a variety of creepy roles throughout his filmography – and that is what he seems to specialize in now, but he’s also the same actor who played Fargo’s most normal character (as Frances McDormand’s husband), so perhaps, even after he tells a very dark story of his own, he really is a normal guy. And perhaps Sadie is harmless and the fact that Will looks at David with so much mistrust can be explained by the fact that Eden met him while Will was still married to him. Throughout most of the film, the other characters – much like the audience – go back and forth from agreeing with Will, that something is off, and thinking he’s just paranoid.
The film is directed by Karyn Kusama – and is easily the best film she made since her breakout Girlfight a good 15 years ago now. After a couple of failed mainstream films (Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body), she has mainly directed TV, but makes a case that she should get more films in the future. Her use of space in the film is wonderful – the fact that the film is confined to one house makes it sound stage bound, but it doesn’t feel like it. The cast is probably two or three people too big – really, after Will, Eden, David, Pruitt and Sadie, the rest of them kind of blend together, and we never get to know any of them in a real way.
Things build and build throughout The Invitation to a truly memorable final image – that will likely stay with anyone who sees the film. I don’t think The Invitation ever truly transcends its genre film trappings – it really is a genre exercise, and as though go, it’s done with skill and precision, but I don’t think the film has anything more to say beyond that. Then again, it doesn’t need to – what is does, it does amazingly well.