Dead man’s party
THE INVITATION, horror, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is driving his new girlfriend (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to a dinner party at his former wife’s home in the hills of Los Angeles when he hits a coyote with his car. Will gets out, finds the coyote near death, removes his tire iron, and ends the animal’s suffering. It’s a harrowing scene, and if the mysterious, elaborate party invitation wasn’t reason enough for him to be nervous about the evening, then this foreshadowing informs the film’s audience that something ill is afoot. Either way, the tone is set.
His ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), has recently returned from a sojourn in South America with her new husband (Michiel Huisman). The pair met at a kind of self-help retreat where Eden was recovering from the death of her young son with Will. Eden has invited many of the ex-couple’s old friends, along with two other people who seem slightly unhinged. As Will tries to make sense of their presence, and the fact that the doors are locked and the windows barred, he senses that something very wrong is happening — and that maybe that “retreat” could more accurately be called a cult.
The audience shares his suspicions. Director Karyn Kusama frames the party as if we are guests, letting the camera pick up details that others don’t notice, and giving the atmosphere a charge of sexual tension that draws us in, even as the characters’ odd behavior pushes us away. We take in most of the action through Will’s eyes, and he’s a perfect proxy — his long hair and beard hide his emotions, but his eyes don’t miss a trick, and he observes the situation with doubt and a survival instinct that the others don’t share.
Is he a reliable narrator, however? Kusama and the script do a superb job of making Will’s concerns seem justified, only to offer a quick plot twist that makes him appear simply paranoid. As he wanders through the mansion, alternating between feeling discomfort over the party and experiencing flashbacks of his now-deceased young child, it becomes clear that he — like Eden — is suffering from grief and is potentially unstable. While The Invitation contains horror-movie elements, it’s ultimately a film about how we cope with unspeakable loss, and this theme fuels a creeping sense of unease all the way to the film’s shocking climax.
Kusama made a huge splash in 2000 with Girlfight, her debut feature, about a Latina teenager who learns to box. Since then, she’s struggled to get a secure and consistent directorial career going — due in part, she recently told Buzzfeed, to the male-dominated nature of the industry.
The Invitation was partially funded by Gamechanger Films, a company that funds independent movies directed by women, and the investment paid off — this is a sharply crafted thriller that gets under your skin without trying to make you jump out of it. With luck, it marks the start of a second act in Kusama’s career.
Is this a party or a wake? Far left, Logan Marshall-Green