Like the best psychological thrillers, The Invitation escalates tension until it’s nearly too much to bear. What’s sneaky about the film, and makes it so involving, is that the tension is more about manners than anything else. The characters may be privileged, yet there is a universal component to the situation in which they find themselves. Director Karyn Kusama’s best asset is her patience – she knows that once the other shoe drops, her command of the film falls with it – so this is a thriller where the opening acts are more fun than the final payoff.
There are is an odd prologue that casts a pall over what’s to follow. Will (Logan-Marshall Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are on their way to a dinner party in the Hollywood hills, and their car accidentally hits a coyote. Will kills it mercifully, but when he arrives at his destination, there is barely any time to discuss what happened. He’s swept up in old habits: the hosts are David (Michiel Huisman) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard), Will’s ex-wife. Will is already on edge because he hasn’t spoken to Eden in two years, and the other guests seem off as well. It could be just be Will – he still has not recovered from a tragedy – but then Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) arrives. Pruitt, David, and Eden speak about “the Invitation,” a new age type organization that excites them. Everyone plays along, at least until Will’s unease transitions into outright hostility.
The screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi is all about dismantling social norms. If this is not a typical party, it is held together by everyone’s collective notion that they must be polite. The Invitation is all about how much the hosts can push their guests before they buckle against the evening’s activities. There is a long, quiet scene where the characters play a truth-telling game that’s sort of like “never have I ever.” It ends with Pruitt delivering a strange monologue, one that’s unseemly precisely because Lynch’s delivery is so gentle, so matter of fact. Will is the audience surrogate, but there is a stretch where it is difficult to sympathize with him. It’s to Kusama’s credit that, for a while anyway, we’re unsure who is crazy, and who is an asshole.
The Invitation would not work without the right production values. The house, the costumes, even the food add to the sense the privilege that defines the social scene. The characters use their privilege to defend their eccentric behavior; there are scenes where they strongly imply, “Look at this house! It says you can trust me.” Kusama films primarily in shadow, with moody soft light, and gives just enough of the house’s layout so that private conversations have an added layer of suspense simply because they’re in a separate room. It is inevitable the climax pales in comparison to what precedes it, yet it includes enough macabre, bizarre details that it unfolds plausibly. Even when the actors do things that seem against the nature of the characters, there is an oddly mournful quality to the action. The characters move out of obligation, not urgency, and that is an emotionally intriguing alternative from other thrillers.
We all have friends with whom we have grown apart. Sometimes the process is natural, sometimes it is acrimonious, and sometimes it happens because our friends have bought into a philosophy/lifestyle that doesn’t feel right. The Invitation taps into that experience in a savage way. The filmmaker correctly realizes that while we may not recognize ourselves, we’ll recognize the situation they’re in. After all, who hasn’t been to a party where they felt they wanted to leave the second they arrived? Luckily, most parties do not end as badly as The Invitation, but then again, getting the opportunity to say “I told you so” is its own kind of sickly pleasurable reward.