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The terms horror and psychological thriller are almost one in the same these days and The Invitation is good at employing some of the best of each. With a slow-burn and simmering dread, the film carefully layers the tension to an almost unbearable level right from the start. That begins and ends with director Karyn Kusama, who burst on the scene in 2000 with the under-seen but magnificent Girlfight and now proves that was no fluke. The Invitation is a triumph in direction and storytelling, one that burrows under your skin and creepily drags you to its depths.
It doesn’t waste time setting the tone. In the opening moments, as Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are driving to the party in the affluent Hollywood hills, Will accidentally hits a coyote in the road. Mortally wounded, the animal lies in agony, bleeding out, and Will makes a choice that involves a tire iron and it leaves the two a bit shaken by the time they arrive at a party that already feels uncomfortable. Will is welcomed by friends he hasn’t seen for some time, people who were part of his life with Eden (Tammy Blanchard), his ex-wife, and they are all happy to see him. Eden enters in a shimmering, near scandalously plunging white gown and her husband David (Michiel Huisman), a chiseled sort of man with rugged good looks is not far behind. Upon seeing Will and Kira, David embraces them with great affection that is as awkward as it sounds.
There is something off about Eden and David, and it only gets more peculiar when Will notices down a hallway, a young woman in the pale light of an open door. She is nude from the waist down and appears to be inviting him to notice. She is Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), and when joins the group, she has donned a slinky summer mini-dress and is excited when Pruitt, an older balding man (John Carroll Lynch) arrives at the house. He and Sadie are strangers to all but Eden and David, and Will is immediately suspicious of the evening’s itinerary. As well he should be, for it’s not long after when David explains how the four of them all met in Mexico at a kind of retreat for people suffering trauma, in this case, the emotional breakdown of a tragedy that split Will and Eden, and her attempted suicide as a result. So profoundly changed by this community in Mexico, David flips open his laptop and plays what amounts to be a sales pitch for a spiritual group called “The Invitation”, a movement that has been getting some newsworthy attention but is scoffed as a cult by many, including the party guests. Out of curiosity, they watch. It changes everything.
Marshall-Green is the center of the story, seeing things happening over shoulders and through windows and down hallways, trying to piece together what’s truly happening. Kusama does a chilling job at keeping it a mystery, and we’re meant to constantly question what it we are seeing and who these people really are. Marshall-Green (Prometheus), almost unrecognizable in long hair and a stringy beard, is very good as a man tortured by his past, haunted by images of his life before this night, and we wonder how stable is he. We sense much about the man he used to be but more about how it’s changed who he is now. Scenes cut from point to point often and yet feel like they are connected, as if they themselves are the scattershot memories of an event that’s already occurred. It’s wonderfully disorienting.
Of the small cast, who are all very good, Carroll Lynch is a standout as Pruitt, the slightly older guest who is converted by The Invitation. His presence is powerfully effective and creates a menace that may or may not be real. His confession during a game of “What I want…” is unnerving and its consequences lead to another event that leaves us wholly unsure. What are we supposed to believe? What’s great about this ensemble is their authenticity. These people feel like adults, with genuine issues. They are smart, and interesting, and none feel unneeded. The fact that they are of many varying ethnicities and sexual preferences goes without commentary. They just are. They are not teenagers trapped in a house of horror. We know something bad is coming, and when it does, it’s not that it’s shocking, it’s that it feels real. And that makes it so much more frightening.
In 2013, Jennifer Kent‘s The Babadook, a psychological horror film, told how depression can haunt with devastating cruelty. With The Invitation, written by Phil Hay (Kusama’s husband) and Matt Manfredi, Kusama explores grief, though not to the same extent yet stemming from similar loss. But it’s also much more, and the result is a gripping experience. It’s to her credit that Kusama makes so many tropes of the genre feel fresh, from the spooky loner, to the isolated house, to even drinking the Kool-Aid as it were. We are so unbalanced by which side to lean to, we resign ourselves to just let it be. There are great moments of tension and Kusama is patient with her camera, interested in her characters, and challenging the audience to invest. When the film ends, or when you think it does, there is still foreboding, even where there can’t be, and yet we are still in for a final surprise, one that is not shallow or contrived but will be subject for lots of conversation. What are we seeing and how far does it go?
The Invitation is not typical, nor does it want to be. It’s harrowing mechanical score by Theodore Shapiro punctuates the disconcerting imagery while the low-light atmosphere adds sensuous depth to the setting and characters. While it may feel disappointing to those expecting more ‘horror’ from their horror movies, the real terror in a good film like is the sense of horror, the dread of a possible reality. It is scary, but not in the close your eyes and hide way. More of an open your eyes and see way. The Invitation is one of the best films of the year.