The Invitation, Karyn Kusama’s incredible psychological thriller, begins with a jolt and never looks back. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his new girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), are on their way to a dinner party hosted by Will’s ex-wife and her new lover. Almost immediately they hit a coyote, and Will has to finish the job on the suffering animal. This, like everything in The Invitation, means something.
Will’s ex is Eden, played by Tammy Blanchard. Her new man is David (Michiel Huisman). They’ve invited all their old friends back for a dinner party, and none of these friends have seen each other in two years while Eden and David have apparently been living in Mexico. There was a tragedy in the past informing this film, shaping the current lives of everyone, and as soon as Will steps back into the home he once shared with Eden – high in Laurel Canyon – that heartbreak comes flooding back.
He’s also the only one who seems to think this dinner party is super weird. Eden and David are aloof, inundated with some New Age way of thinking and speaking. They have a “presentation” for everyone. Choi, one of the friends in the group, is extremely late, and there are two outsiders lurking at the party: Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), and Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), a twitchy young girl who appears to have hopped a ride with Eden and David from Mexico to Los Angeles. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s no cell service in the Canyon. And the two hosts sure are pushing this wine on everyone.
No, things are not right, and Will cannot relax.
The Invitation settles into the strangest dinner party I can remember. Will spends the majority of his time scanning the house in which he used to live, plagued with idyllic memories of his former life, going outside for air, and growing increasingly paranoid of secret conversations and strange behavior. Tension hangs thick in the air, and Kusama and Musician Theodore Shapiro make no bones about impending dread with Shapiro’s prickly, unnerving score. And the camera, gliding though the warm yellows and browns of this mini modern-art mansion, capture perfect angles and just the right reveals along the way. The film may push towards an end we can all probably see coming, but the journey is brilliant. Will has a one-on-one conversation with just about every person at the party, old friends who disappeared after the tragedy. The conversations build the history of these characters and their relationship to Will through mundanity and familiarity. Until everything begins falling apart.
The unraveling isn’t quick, but it’s there from the very beginning. The final act of The Invitation explodes, and the final shot will knock you flat. Marshall-Green, who has the unfortunate (or fortunate?) disadvantage of looking exactly like Tom Hardy, has delivered solid work in his career. But nothing he has ever done in the past is as powerful as the bottled-up intensity on display here. Will has retreated from his old life, sadness consuming him, and that sadness may or may not be manifesting itself in the form of growing suspicion. Marshall-Green nails it. Everyone plays their part and plays it with a pitch-perfect ear for the rhythm of Kusama’s film.
What’s most surprising about The Invitation is the emotional weight it carries through this house of psychological horrors. In the end, these characters have been sold to us as real, and they feel real. The consequences are that much more intense in the end because, no matter how strange and tragic things have been, we manage to empathize and maybe even understand a little. There are no clear-cut roles when all is said and done. It’s a testament to Kusama’s direction and her ability to balance masterful tension with honest human emotion. The film is better because of it.
The Invitation is at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin today, and available on iTunes. Seek it out.