Release: Friday, April 8, 2016 (limited)
Written by: Phil Hay; Matt Manfredi
Directed by: Karyn Kusama
Dinner parties tend to get awkward when guests start dropping dead.
Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body; Aeon Flux) invites you inside the strange goings-on of what was supposed to be a casual get-together among longtime friends, friends reuniting after a traumatic event. Paranoia and mistrust run rampant in The Invitation as painful memories from the past are dredged up and inauspicious developments in the present combine to form one of the most tension-rich environments you’re likely to get in a mystery thriller of its ilk.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to call Kusama’s latest film fairly predictable stuff. Even if you’re only half paying attention you’re likely going to make a good assumption as to how everything wraps up. The disastrous dinner party scenario isn’t played out per se but it is formulaic and there are certain limitations not even the likes of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who share writing duties here, can overcome. Still, writing within limitations doesn’t mean you have to restrict your creativity — if anything it means just the opposite — and this deliciously suspenseful, utterly engaging and nerve-racking story is proof these writers enjoy embracing that challenge. The main beats you can feel coming well in advance but there’s a wealth of material in between that make The Invitation a plump cherry to savor.
The story is about a man returning to his former residence after he’s accepted an invitation to a dinner being thrown by his ex-wife and her new husband. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is on the way over with his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) when his distracted driving results in striking an animal in the middle of the road. So yeah, okay, maybe it’s not the subtlest way of foreshadowing what comes later but the moment succeeds in preempting tension that will rarely excuse itself from the narrative going forward.
That tension sets in in earnest when Will and Kira arrive and are greeted by friends they haven’t seen in some time. Things are definitely awkward, everyone needs a first drink. But everyone also seems a little . . . odd. Maybe that’s just the way Will is perceiving things. Bobby Shore’s camera sticks close by his side as he reacquaints himself with the house he once lived in. He’s quiet and stand-offish, resulting in a number of instances where friends come up to him and ask how he’s doing. Telling him they love him. Maybe it’s just the hosts that are off-putting. After all it can’t be easy listening to your ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) vehemently declaring how intent she is on living a life free of pain and grief now; how she wants a troubled past with Will to be forgotten and moved beyond.
Her husband David (Michiel Huisman) spouts the same gibberish, passionately reciting some bullshit philosophical utterances touted by a “grief support group” the two have recently joined. David even goes so far as to show everyone a video of what goes on during their “sessions.” (Yes, everything is now going to be in mystery quotes.) The contents are “fairly disturbing” to say the least. We continue to ride the night out from Will’s point of view, his mounting discomfort shedding the thin veil of subtlety it had earlier. He’s very suspicious of this David fella and not because he’s the guy his ex is now seeing.
To get everyone’s minds off of the weirdness he just subjected them to, David suggests they participate in an ice-breaking game called ‘I Want,’ a variation on ‘I Have Never,’ and the evening takes another interesting turn when Eden wants to kiss Ben (Jay Larson), the same guy she briefly became hostile towards for making a harmless joke moments ago. This is just one example of the woman’s erratic behavior. At this point we wish we could be Claire, a guest who has become so uncomfortable she just wants to leave, despite the hosts’ protests. Somewhere along the way an unexpected guest has arrived, an imposingly large man named Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). He’s from the same support group. Meanwhile, the partiers are still awaiting the arrival of Choi (Karl Yune), a friend who promised to show up early.
A talented cast and crew help Kusama realize the potential in her cult-themed thriller. Marshall-Green brings a quiet intensity to his part as a conflicted Will but aside from him there are no particular standouts; rather, the ensemble of relative unknowns fails to register a false note in their emotional responses. Major spoiler-related actions notwithstanding, people behave in The Invitation as you would expect them to in real life. These aren’t people you ever really like, something that actually works in the film’s favor as it merely compounds the stress. The characters are each their own oddball, constantly demonstrating behavior that could prove to be their own undoing. Best of all, no one character is defined by a singular emotional outburst; they have names, not labels.
Throughout, Kusama’s direction remains disciplined and keenly focused on the biased perception of an unreliable protagonist. (Or is Will the only sane one in the room?) Kusama employs flashbacks that occasionally feel heavy-handed but contrasted against the vagaries of Will’s shifty demeanor they become vital. They help us appreciate why this get-together was never going to feel normal. It’s her work behind the camera that ensures The Invitation remains a consistently rewarding watch, and despite the third act gut-punch losing a bit of its edge due to some blatant foreshadowing earlier, everything winds up in a snap that’s just too good to resist.
Recommendation: Despite its predictability, The Invitation is simply too well-acted and executed to ignore. It’s claustrophobic and intimate and awkward and tense and pretty much everything that makes the formulaic dinner-party mystery thriller great. An able cast helps convince while strong work from behind the camera marks this as a project clearly everyone believed in. A very fun and rewarding watch, highly recommended.
Running Time: 100 mins.
Quoted: “Forgiveness doesn’t have to wait. I’m free to forgive myself and so are you. It’s a beautiful thing. It really is.”
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