Karyn Kusama's The Invitation is a wry, chilling study of behaviors, beliefs and taboos
The Invitation Drafthouse Films
Director: Karyn Kusama
Screenplay: Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Michelle Krusiec, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Jay Larson, Lindsay Burge and John Carroll Lynch
Rated R / 1 hour, 40 minutes
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
The lesson, I suppose, is don't go to a dinner party in Los Angeles. You could find yourself stuck in an endlessly repeating time-space paradox (Coherence). Or in the sadistic clutches of a madman undercover cop (The Perfect Host). You could end up taking someone up on an increasingly dangerous series of dares (Cheap Thrills). You could get propositioned by a charming pair of swingers (The Overnight). You could get propositioned by a charming pair of off-brand Amway peddlers who you simply assumed were swingers (Go).
Or, you could find yourself the target of an excessively polite pseudo-religious cult that simply will not admit it's a pseudo-religious cult - at least until it's far too late. Which brings us to Karyn Kusama's The Invitation.
I don't believe it constitutes a spoiler to reveal that there's a cult element in play here, even though no one ever specifies that fact - or even says the word - until well into the evening during which the entire film takes place. Because from the moment the guests arrive, the behavior of their hosts appears dubious, the explanations of their happiness too vague. They're too pleasant, too calm - an off-putting combination of self-assured and docile. It's especially alarming for Will (Logan Marshall-Green), our ostensible lead, considering one of the hosts is his once-suicidal ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard). Together, she and Will once had a son - and lived in the very house where this dinner party is being held - who died unexpectedly, leading inexorably to the dissolution of their marriage.
Since then, their former circle of friends hasn't heard much from Eden. No one's seen her in two years. And this new husband of hers, David (Michiel Huisman) - all controlled cordiality and kindness; stern but almost too accommodating to his guests - is mostly a stranger to everyone else. And yet he and Eden have apparently returned to civilization and invited everyone over, with no pretense beyond a genuine desire to reunite with old friends.
Except if this is merely a reunion among friends, why are two strangers (played by Lindsay Burge and John Carroll Lynch) along as well? Except if this just dinner and drinks among friends, why did you just show us that video? And why would you admit that in front of complete strangers? And hold on a second, why did you bolt the front door when the last guest arrived? Apparently there's been a rash of break-ins in the neighborhood recently. That does make sense. Except.
Kusama shows a real command of the strange interpersonal dynamics at work in the early scenes, balancing detached warmth, sexual tension and frequently awkward exchanges - between long-time friends whose chemistry is a little rusty; between former lovers meeting new ones (including Will's new girlfriend Kira, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi); between strangers meeting for the first time - with aplomb, creating an agreeable but eerie calm. She doesn't oversell the possibility that something might be slightly amiss, but just lets it sit there unspoken, using the characters' interactions to suggest what dialogue does not. (At one point, Eden angrily snaps at another character, and a few moments later is all smiles and passive-aggressive conciliatory gestures.)
The term "slow burn" is probably an overused descriptor, but there's something very specific about the deliberate pace at which things unfold in The Invitation. Particularly how non-"event"-based it is. Even when something happens, or is said, that puts people on edge, the situation just calmly dissipates, as if it was just a misunderstanding or an innocent disagreement and after all, hey, we're all friends here. The condensed time and space - a single night, a single location - helps, too. The film doesn't proceed in real-time, but it almost feels like it could.
The film gets its most potent effects from Kusama's emphasis on observation, notably in the deliberate way her compositions separate individual characters from the others. In several moments her background/foreground dynamics are almost comic in their framing. A character will be facing us while the rest of the group remains behind in the distance, out of focus but drawing our attention in a way that almost makes us expect background slapstick. Sometimes there really is nothing to see, but Kusama makes sure we're looking anyway.
Other times, the character will be watching everyone else - still out of focus, still in the distance - and just observing, as if trying to gauge what others are thinking, what their intentions are. Then it will work in reverse - the group observing the individual.
The entire movie is made up of people assessing the behavior of others, and the more incrementally unusual (and even then, always subjectively so) things get, the more sinister the mood gets even while, theoretically, the narrative itself has no "stakes." It's just a dinner party. In a normal neighborhood. In a big city. The tension is all in the way everyone feels each other out, managing their suspicions, their grievances, their better angels.
There's not necessarily a whole lot to the proceedings when all is said and done. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi's screenplay offers some fine moments and a chilling setup, but with some rather mundane particulars once we get to them. Still, Kusama is able to translate all that into a carefully peculiar study of human behavior - suggesting, if nothing else, that politeness may not always be such a virtue after all. Maybe these old friends would have been better off taking a rain check.