A group of people reuniting after a certain period of time always makes for awkward fun, whether it's the story of a high school reunion or, as in Karyn Kusama's The Invitation, friends meeting two years later after one of their own has gone on a mysterious retreat to Mexico. The Invitation is a slow-burn thriller with elements heavily borrowed from the work of Ti West - the comparison alone dictates whether you'll enjoy the film or not - that blends the awkward humor of The Overnight with the terror of The Sacrament.
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatazy Corinealdi) are meeting his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) for the first time in two years. Will and Eden took different paths in grief after the death of their son and while Will has seemingly learned to cope, Eden went off to a retreat in Mexico where she met David (Michiel Huisman). Along with the rest of Will and Eden's friends, the dinner party tries to make things pleasant, but when some of Eden and David's new friends arrive - all of whom subscribe to the unknown religion known as The Invitation - things take a turn for the terrible.
Never is a scene more nerve-wracking than when you're reunited with people you share history with. Screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi take their time parceling out the history of these characters with particular emphasis on Will's relationships. We're told Will and Eden have lost their son, but both find themselves haunted by it in different ways. Where Eden has no problems inhabiting the house she once shared with her husband child, taking up residence with new paramour David, Will sees history in every room. For him, the house is a living entity, enhancing the claustrophobia of this single-location thriller.
Things start off ominously, with Will and Kira hitting a coyote on the way to Eden's. Death lingers over Will like a black cloud and by the end both characters understand the various types of "mercy." It's this desire to be merciful, whether it's finding a way to escape pain or just being polite around strangers - these characters are all eager to be out of their own types of misery - and that's where the concept of The Invitation, the group Eden and David are part of, that intrigues even when it all comes to a formulaic conclusion.
The guests of our party are all acting "as if" - i.e. normal individuals without fears or anxieties, both regarding the situation at hand or in their everyday lives. Part of Will's growing paranoia and suspicion that something is wrong with Eden and David is their seemingly nonchalant casting off of their pain and grief. "I'm free...it's something anyone can have," Eden declares and much of the film leaves the audience questioning how a religion that makes someone comfortable with death can be so wrong. There are subtle implications that "The Invitation" is a cult - especially with the appearance of the giggly Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and the foreboding Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). These two nearly give the game away and you have to wonder if they're over-the-top acts of menace might harm the overall impact.
Logan Marshall-Green, of Prometheus fame, is the film's bigger name cast member. (This is a film where you'll spend a lot of time playing "Where do I know them?") Though the concept of the grief-stricken father has been done in countless other movies - Manfredi and Hay really miss an opportunity to do something cool with gender, instead making Willi the grieving father and Eden the religious zealot - Marshall-Green infuses Will with enough sadness to trump the Inside Out character. In his need to vent his frustration he's the only one voicing the audiences' concerns, stating that everyone's politeness is seemingly covering up for the weird stuff truly going on. One of the film's funnier moments involves Will's demanding to know what's going on, only to have the character everyone thought was doomed walk in.
Tammy Blanchard and Michiel Huisman are nothing short of riveting as Eden and David, our possible villains. I've been a fan of Blanchard since her turn as Judy Garland in ABC's TV movie and here, introduced in a form-fitting gown with such joy on her face, you're ready to be sworn into whatever cult she's shilling for. Game of Thrones fans will recognize Huisman, whose David is a quiet, apparently calm voice of reason that might have more underneath. The rest of the guests are rather one-note, there to pad out the group and show that Eden and Will had quite the collective of friends.
Things build very slowly, so slowly the audience is nearly left screaming for something to happen. The Ti West comparison is appropriate as much of the suspense comes from Will, an outsider in his former residence, wandering around a house that has so many memories from his past, clashing with the present situation. Fans of House of the Devil will definitely enjoy the film's puzzles and disinterest in providing exposition.
Audiences will respond to the final scene as a gut punch or a disappointment. Kusama and crew have done such a great job distilling events and The Invitation as a group to a single location. The group's overall end-game does play like more of a satirical jab at Hollywood's blind devotion to new religions - "This is L.A. They're harmless" - than something to actually fear. And in spite of Kusama's participation as director, the film's gender dynamics remain stale. Though a female director doesn't automatically require an overhaul of how gender is portrayed, it would have been nice for the female characters to be a little more developed.
The Invitation plays with many fantastic ideas and the slow-burn build and awkward humor keep you on your toes. There's a ton of misdirection in this and you're never quite sure when the bottom will fall out. The acting is top-notch, and while it doesn't quite stick the landing, it's a fun ride all the same. If anything, The Invitation proves why you should never invite John Carroll Lynch to dinner.
The Invitation arrives on April 8th