The Invitation, a dramatic thriller directed by Karyn Kusama, is an absolutely masterful slow burn. It asks for but a little bit of patience, and in return, puts a boot on your chest and slowly, unrelentingly presses. Its a movie best watched from the comfort of a couch, with full awareness that you aren’t getting yourself into an action extravaganza but otherwise little knowledge about what to expect. Given its current widespread availability on Netflix, it is the type of movie that I recommend just watching without reading this review if that at all sounds interesting to you.
At the start of The Invitation, Will is invited to a reunion party at the house of his ex-wife Eden and her new husband David. They haven’t seen each other in two years, since they split up following their son’s death, and neither have the other members of their former group of friends also at the party. If the situation weren’t awkward enough, Eden and David invite a couple of their other friends they met at a retreat in Mexico, where they got in touch with their spirituality and flushed themselves of grief and pain. While everyone in the room becomes more and more uncomfortable, Will becomes more and more suspicious about why they’re really being gathered.
Most movies give their characters some backstory to make them more relatable, and the death of Will and Eden’s son initially seems boilerplate, the seismic weight of such an event is necessary to the character arcs it presents. Will and Eden both process the loss in different ways; Will seems to have been a recluse until recently, bottling his grief and losing his sense of trust. Eden has given herself up to a god of a sort, relieving herself of personal responsibility. It’s likely not coincidence that Logan Marshall-Green and Michael Huisman, who play Will and David, have a significant physical resemblance to each other (from the trailer, you can really only tell them apart by their beard length), as they are two possible endpoints of a path started by trauma. While the film puts us in Will’s headspace, and allows his paranoia to fester in our minds, it also asks us what we would do in the same situation through its minor yet relatable supporting cast. We’ve all had one or two friends who get involved with a lifestyle or group that we can’t in full faith support. What do we do when confronted with that? How much will it take for it to break our trust in them? How safe is it to give the benefit of the doubt? The Invitation asks us to reflect on our own social circles, on the pain of others that we cannot ever fully empathize with.
But first and foremost, The Invitation is an effective, spellbinding thriller. It’s smart enough to forgo big twists, quickly narrowing the progression of events to one of two possible endgames, and lets us squirm while Will decides between the two. Even though it mostly consists of minor slights and quick catchups with old friends along the way, The Invitation ratchets up the tension methodically until it reaches a natural, absolute breaking point. It’s not flashy, but its absolutely engrossing.
The Invitation (2016)
Directed by Karyn Kusama
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michael Huisman, and John Carroll Lynch
Rotten Tomatoes (88%)
- SPOILERS: If there’s one real bum note, its the final scene, where the suicide cult is revealed to have an immense presence in the Hollywood Hills. It removes the drama entirely from the situation, leaning far too hard into its horror movie DNA. Although its a bit debatable whether the ten-minute trapped-in-the-house horror climax is already a step too far, even then The Invitation still functions as a film about how loss can warp your perspective, and how difficult it can be to believe the worst about those you know. The final shot suggests its a lesser, cheesier film about a global conspiracy of nutjobs.
- SPOILERS: Just for clarity, the two possible endgames I meant were Will is paranoid and socially self-destructive, or Eden and David really are part of a murder cult. The movie isn’t subtle about the murder-cult reveal, but it did string me along until the moment of truth as to whether Will was just being overly paranoid, especially given that he was predisposed to be suspicious of Eden’s peace given his own inner turmoil over their son’s death.
- SPOILERS: One of the better bits of subtext to be found in the film is about the very concept of heaven, which the movie admirably doesn’t embellish with its own mythos. The suicide cult wants to kill their loved ones so they can rejoin with the ones they lost in heaven; not Valhalla, not Dr. Joseph’s Fantasy Ranch, but the very Christian notion of heaven. It begs questions regarding the selfishness of the very concept of heaven without outright stating them, but considering how things like the red lanterns show a very different direction they could have gone with the cult, the restrained mythology in this regard is very much appreciated.