Writing about a movie like The Invitation is a delicate business, because much of its effectiveness depends on the surprise twists in the narrative. Even mentioning that there are surprise twists in effect telegraphs what they can be. From any story premise, there are only so many possibilities that can happen. In a story about a man who thinks people are out to get him, he either needs to be vindicated, or shown definitively to be paranoid. A middle road essentially means there's no story.
It's a testament to the craftsmanship that went into The Invitation that, even though the inevitable twist sends the story down the equally inevitable path, it is an open question to the audience as the movie went on as to exactly what that twist would be.
The premise of the film is simple: two years after a tragedy split up their marriage (and essentially broke up a group of friends) Will has received an invitation from his ex, Eden, to come to a dinner party at their old house. All of their friends are invited, as well as a couple of new ones, including Eden's new husband David. The opening moments of the dinner party reveal the still lingering tension between Will and Eden: she has moved on from the tragedy that pulled them apart. Will, despite having a pretty new girlfriend, has not. (This is signified by Will's hair and beard, which look like neither have been trimmed since the bad event.)
I am speaking around the tragedy not because it is a major part of the twist, but because The Invitation's effectiveness depends on revealing itself slowly to the audience, and coming into the movie with too much knowledge could limit that effectiveness. Active participation in the unfolding events of the movie are what make a thriller like this one work.
Will is the central character of the film, but in the very beginning, he engages in some pretty distancing behavior: on the way to the house (which is in the Hollywood hills) he hits a coyote with his car. He gets out, and in a mercy killing beats the animal to death with a tire iron. It's not a cruelty, but his lack of hesitation and his determination make it clear that Will has reserves in him that might turn to violent ends. So as the film progresses and he acts suspicious of David and Eden, his otherwise reasonable questions (Why is the front door locked? Why are there bars on the windows?) become aggressive and seemingly paranoid.
His paranoia is apparently justified when a late arrival joins the party, Pruitt (played with eerie calm by John Carroll Lynch). Pruitt, David, and Eden have all joined a spiritual movement, called The Invitation, and are using this dinner party also as a sort of recruitment drive (they say that's not what they're doing, but it precisely is).
As the evening goes on, it's interesting how The Invitation builds tension not from typical thriller tropes (no scary footsteps coming from upstairs, no people suddenly appearing out of the corner of the screen) but from social etiquette. If Will's growing paranoia is right, and Eden and David are up to something nefarious, then it's perfectly reasonable that he wants to walk his friend Claire out of the house when she leaves, instead of letting Pruitt do it, and that he wants to watch from the window to make sure she gets out okay. If he's wrong, though, he's being rude, and ruining the evening for everyone else.
It's interesting to build a tense, sometimes scary movie out of seeing how far people are willing to let themselves ignore discomfort from a sense of politeness. Snooping through the drawers of a potential mad woman is sensible, but when it's at a dinner party and that woman is your ex-wife, you become creepy stalker man.
When The Invitation follows through on its premise of creepy dinner party, with the friendly "getting to know you" games building into disturbing revelations about people you don't even want to know, it works wonderfully. Except for the opening scene with the unfortunate coyote, the entire film takes place in the house (even in the occasional flashbacks to Eden and Will's happier days) and the feeling of confinement is palpable.
The tension does slack off a bit during the actual dinner, and Will goes off on his own to be alone three or four times, seemingly whenever the scene needs to change. The first couple of times it works (and the last one, where he goes to be in a special room by himself) but in the middle it looks less like emotional fallout and more like screenwriters a couple of ideas short of things to do.
When the movie is doing what it should, forcing all the characters to be together and to interact with each other even when they don't want to, that's when the movie works, up to a well-staged climax and a final shot that does what I think all good horror (or horror adjacent) movies should do: open up the scope of the movies premise from the personal to the wider world.
Marrying a creepy psychological thriller to a Los Angeles dinner party is a great concept, and The Invitation pulled it off ably. Directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Aeon Flux) it never lets its single location feel boring, even as it becomes stiflingly claustrophobic. The performances are natural and interesting. It's rare that a thriller feels populated by human beings. To also have a premise that relies of human mores and emotions rather than invented psychoses or baroque plot devices is a particular pleasure.
My review screener of The Invitation included a 10-minute making-of doc and a feature commentary. The doc is above average for an EPK talking head "This movie is great" doc - though brief, it contains some insight into crafting the dynamics of the characters and plot of the film. The commentary, which is done by the director and co-writers, goes further into discussing developing the characters and working with the actors in their cramped location.
The Invitation is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.