Dead man’s party

THE IN­VI­TA­TION, hor­ror, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cin­ema, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - MOVING IMAGES - — Robert Ker

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

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