Above all else, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation really taps into that weird state where a gathering around you (like, as in the film, a dinner party) has reached exceedingly uncomfortable levels for whatever reason, yet any attempt to acknowledge this means you swerve from status of rallying voice of reason to madman yelling out into the void thanks to the slightest little variable. Except, in the case of this often nerve-shredding chamber piece, the domestic horror seems close to teetering into domestic horror genre at a moment’s notice, as the film’s hand is not revealed for an impressive stretch of time. Is this a film about a malicious brainwashing cult? Do we want it to stay as just the exploration of a paranoid victim of trauma? Is it a mere coincidence that this film is set among the hill-based homes of Los Angeles plagued by the Manson family? Let’s find out!
Seemingly happy couple Will (Logan Marshall-Green, his strongest performance to date) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) have been invited to a get-together at Will’s former home, where his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her boyfriend, David (Michiel Huisman), are looking to reconnect with friends after several years of nigh-on absent communication. Through a couple of recollections of the past brought on by Will’s nerves at returning to the home where he was once happy, we learn that the death of their son via accident at a birthday party drove an irreparable wedge between he and Eden. Dishevelled, shaggy-bearded and struggling with small talk, Will is baffled by the state of Eden, who seems bizarrely jovial and aloof, parading in a white gown that seems befit of a much more formal occasion than her guests seem to have been made aware of; the polar opposite of the self-harming, tortured woman he last saw before she and David up and vanished two years before.
As the night goes on, we find out that Eden and David have addressed her grief through the unusual means of a group that their friends are inclined to call a cult, based on a video their hosts show them. Adding to the awkwardness of the situation, beyond mere issues of estrangement, is the presence of a flighty young woman named Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), who met David and Eden through their time away and is now a houseguest, one first glimpsed by Will as she watches him vaguely seductively from the shadows, considerably lacking in clothes for her bottom half. There’s also the matter of a rather stiff and considerably older new friend of the hosts named Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch, deliberately cast, one expects, to bring to mind his Arthur Leigh Allen in Zodiac), who doesn’t say much but can’t help but seem sinister whenever he utters a syllable. And that’s before he’s even shed a light on his background. Also adding to Will’s growing suspicions are David’s insistence on locking the front door (supposedly because of a recent neighbourhood burglary), the wildly fluctuating quality of phone reception, and the extended delay of one party guest, whom no one can get a hold of despite suggestions he was to be one of the earliest arrivals.
Thanks to the skilled hand of director Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body), The Invitation is a deeply uncomfortable but also eerily funny skewering of the hostility that can lurk under the veil of hospitality. Were it not for certain developments in the finale (no spoilers) that might render it difficult to realise, one suspects it would also make for a very compelling stage production, though that’s not to suggest the film lacks a feeling of the cinematic; there’s some exquisite framing work to be found, while the piercing, atmospheric sound design adds an element that might not be as well-executed in a theatrical environment. If there’s an element that some may find bothersome about the overall film, it may well be that, considering the ideas it does touch on briefly, it could arguably be deemed as little more than a genre exercise with little aspiration to aim for larger depth with where it does actually go.
That said, where it does go provides such an infectious rush that the qualm tends to be quelled. In its finale, when the hand is finally dealt, there is an explosion of directorial confidence in the execution of… well, that would be unfair to say. I don’t want to give anything away. But, here, perhaps you’d like to watch this video I have? These people really changed my life…
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently a contributing editor at PopOptiq, a writer for VODzilla.co, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.