The Invitation October 18, 2016
Between viewings of Clue and You’re Next have I found that I much prefer watching dinner parties from hell to experiencing them firsthand. Granted, all I’ve had to sit through are a couple of awkward conversations at worst — I should consider myself lucky that I’ve neither been quite literally trapped at a gathering nor stuck in the middle of a murderous scheme that involves me possibly getting offed.
Karyn Kusama’s sublimely slow burning The Invitation is no different in its subversive thrills than the aforementioned larks, though one would think that its characters would be slightly more apprehensive in their RSVPing considering the circumstances and the guest list. The film solely takes place (unless you count the cynical prologue) at a shindig at the home of Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and David (Michiel Huisman). The happy couple’s been married for a few years now, but almost all their friends haven’t seen them in two years — in store, as it’s perceived, is an extensive reunion meant to take everyone back to what’s distinguished as the “good old days.”
Things wouldn’t be so immensely uncomfortable if not for the inviting of Will (Logan Marshall-Green), Eden’s ex-husband. Having divorced due to the accidental death of their young son, tensions are underlined in a grief that makes the situation almost unbearable; from the moment this dinner party kicks off, the air is tinged in disconcertion so strong you’d maybe even be able to reach out and grab it if you tried hard enough.
But it doesn’t take long for it to become obvious that something else it at play within the posh walls of Eden and David’s Hollywood Hills home. Have they perhaps invited their estranged friends over not to heal old wounds but to serve something more sinister than their guests realize?
I’d better stop speculating over the details of the plot there for fear of spoiling too much — The Invitation’s overture of thrills cascade over us so deliberately and so cautiously that to know too much in advance would potentially counteract the balancing act Kusama and her screenwriters, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, so exquisitely execute. Unraveling with the suspenseful agony of a bandage being taken off a nasty gash after a month’s worth of recovering, the film gets everything just about right, its conversations increasing in their edge with delectable precision, its performances always understatedly mounting in their anxiety (or, depending on who we’re taking about, their rancorousness).
And the gleaming unspooling of The Invitation is not an easy thing to pull off — on display is confident filmmaking only a veteran of Kusama’s sort could achieve. One could say that it’s a comeback for the filmmaker, who broke out with 2000’s Girlfight but was sidelined by the failures of the critically panned Æon Flux (2005) and the undeservedly underrated Jennifer’s Body (2009). It’s one of the best independent films of the year: The Invitation is a (brutally dark) comedy of manners with Buñuel in its head and Polanski in its heart.
With a deliciously twisted ending acting as the cinematic cherry on top to the succulent sum of its parts, The Invitation is horror with enough emotional tugs and enough categorical terror to stick with you as a minor masterpiece not to be reckoned with. Here’s to hoping that we’ll all spend the rest of our lives never having to go to a dinner party as much a nightmare as the one depicted. B+