Sure, dinner parties can get awkward, but The Invitation takes it to all new levels of social discomfort. Small talk and big boozing are nothing compared to the paranoia suffered in this creepy genre-blender that mixes realistic emotional drama, haunted house basics, and California New Age cultishness. With tight direction from Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) and a script full of loose screws, The Invitation is a unique, low-budget winner — and another standout thriller in 2016.
Let’s begin with the film’s first-scene foreshadowing. If you like yours crystal clear, you’ll enjoy a vaguely defined couple (Logan Marshall-Green and Emayatzy Corinealdi) smacking their car into a coyote, forcing the guy to put the poor creature out of its misery. They are Will and Kira, on their way to have dinner with some SoCal pals Will hasn’t seen for two years — that includes his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard). It’s carefully revealed that the married couple once had a little boy and then their lives turned disastrous.
Considering the dinner party is at their old home, and is hosted by Eden and her new touchy-feely hippie boyfriend, we’ve got enough for a tense little tragi-drama. But there’s plenty more. It seems the hosts have ulterior motives at play (and ‘play’ is the right word, as Kusama clearly loves teasing all this out), wanting to introduce their guests to a new way of thinking (from Mexico!) that sheds all past personal guilt, and encourages people to move forward in life with a crisp, Stepford Wives smile.
The mood is unquestionably eerie. Guests who claim to be enlightened sound like they’re playing in Jim Jones’ neighborhood, bringing an unnatural dynamic to a group of friends that appear to be normally warm and supportive. If it all feels like a modern episode of The Twilight Zone, that’s no mistake.
The point-of-view in the house is Will’s and Marshall-Green gives the character everything we need to sympathize with his fears, urges, and indefinable pain. Very much a Tom Hardy doppleganger, Marshall-Green sports a bushy beard and untrusting face which, depending on how the actor plays it, make Will look like a rugged softy or a paranoid nutjob. We’re supposed to question Will’s assessment of the situation, and we sometimes do. But while similar movies focus almost completely on whether the protagonist is crazy, it’s clear in The Invitation that something is going on. We’re just not sure what it is.
Working from a satisfying and tricky script from Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (R.I.P.D, Ride Along), Kusama conveys Will’s inner hurt without taking away from the classic thriller attributes that make the film work so well. One all-too-convenient sequence places Will in his son’s old room, but the resulting tenderness makes the lack of motivation forgivable – and gives us a respite from the madness for a brief, beautiful moment.
Perhaps the clearest sign of The Invitation’s greatness is its finale. It exhibits a healthy nod to the genre work that has come before it and feels somewhat predictable – yet it works really well anyway. And man, would I love to see what happens in the 15 minutes after the film has cut to black. That being impossible, I’ll probably just watch this again.