Though its first 80 minutes could be plodding for anyone familiar with a conventional thriller, The Invitation delivers a uniquely creepy story of grief and despair set in unnerving, cramped ambiance.
Directed by Karyn Kusama (with a screenplay by Matt Manfredi and Kusama’s husband, Phil Hay), The Invitation stands out as one of the best psychological thriller flicks Hollywood has offered us in recent years. With the potential premise for a comedy, the 100-minute film slowly creeps up on its audience with a claustrophobic vibe, threatening about the true horror it refuses to unfold till the very last moment.
The opening shot is shrouded in mist then the movie quickly introduces our protagonist Will (Logan Marshall-Green, a Tom Hardy doppelganger), whose mind is clouded just as the way to Hollywood Hills he drives on. Accompanied by his girlfriend Kira (Emayatze Corinealdi), Will is invited to a reunion by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) who sports a similar look, but less “ragdish”, than Will. At the happy, wealthy couple’s residence, we are introduced to our stereotypical clique: the energetic, free-spirited gay couple Miguel (Jordi Vilasuso) and Tommy (Mike Doyle), the quiet, square woman of career Claire (Marieh Delfino), the typical chunky, comical Ben (Jay Larson) and the Asian-American party girl Gina (Michelle Krusiec) who announces that her boyfriend Choi (Karl Yune) is late to the party. Sadie, a thin, scantily-clad friend of the host later shows up in a strange and erotic manner.
Treated by Eden and David’s fuzzy hospitality, Will is also constantly reminded of the death of Tyler, his son in the previous marriage with Eden. His swelling paranoia starts to kick in, leaving him extremely cautious of every detail he stumbles upon while walking around the house. It all comes off more threatening when Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch – our familiar villain veteran actor), another friend from David’s esoteric social circle, ties up the guest list. Building upon the situation, David starts to present them all a video about The Invitation, a bizarre self-help group with ‘cultists’ written all over it. An ostensibly malicious scheme unravels, as Will keeps suspecting quite a few of odd behaviors from the hosts while most of the clueless guests just negligently enjoy the evening and indulge themselves with David’s 8-million-dollar bottles of fine red wine.
The setting is packed in an indescribably unsettling atmosphere, enforced by the house’s brownish decoration alongside with a depressing feel from awkward interactions spotted in this overdue social gathering. These people are surely close in the past, as we can tell by most of the sincere hugs and witty banters between Will and Ben or Miguel and Kira, but there is this inconvenient mood drooling down and spreading all over the fancy guest room. It might be their half-forced politeness in such social setting that establishes the ground for further development of nail-biting doubts, especially when the absence of Choi could very well add up to Will’s speculation. Bobby Shore’s exquisite cinematography, by way of movement control, blocking and lighting, just to name a few, has miraculously framed Hay and Manfredi’s pragmatic dialogues onto the screen, rendering everything so in the moment. In all, the movie is genuinely creepy in a way that conventional thrillers/horrors often fail to accomplish. When we are latched onto certain characters’ mentality, it is easier to ground us into said characters’ corresponding deeds-to-come and to leave us with our own brainwork as the story slowly unfolds.
Mostly seen from Will’s point of view, The Invitation is also narrated through his observation, which is more often than not blurred with flashbacks. However, those scenes do not feel shoehorned at all. In fact, they even fit perfectly into the plot as Will remembers past incidents only when stumbling upon a place or an object that associates with said memories. He is the one in denial and is absolutely obsessed with Tyler passing away that he refuses to let anyone mention anything about the poor boy. Will’s troubled mental issues subdue any intelligible judgment of his former and current self, controlling the way he interacts with others. Or at least, it appears like that. The overwhelming dismissal and self-inflicted guilt is repressed inside of him without any possible kind of relief like profound sharing, as Kira fails to help him open up later in the film. Yet also due to this state of mind, Will is the only one to notice strange behaviors from David, Eden, and their pal Pruitt, as well as certain details around his old house like the bars on windows. Though the atmosphere has already shifted to awkward and uncanny ever since Sadie rolls in, mild aggression to take control over the situation from David (locking the front door) and Pruitt (stating that phone service is not available up there) really leaves the audience, not just Will, engulfed in confusion.
This muddling clutter proceeds forward really well with Kusama’s superb narration. Exposition is brilliantly kept to a minimum with the introduction of side characters. Miguel is asked by Will about the drugs, so we know he is a doctor of some kind, which later contributes to the film final act; or Claire is revealed to be a professor through just one question. Will’s outburst of anger and doubt, near the end of the second act, is not by any means abundantly excessive because audience have already observed the story through the lense of his unstable mind all along. It could very well be necessary as this is the turning point in his character arc. His decisions have all been building up to a point where everything seems to be exactly the way he sees, then turned up-side-down as a twist occurs, denying what he believes the situation to be. Moments of surrealism really blur the line between Will’s consciousness and insanity. The Invitation manages to play around as the audience is fooled for a while with Will rushing to acceptance after realizing his obsession with Tyler and his marriage: ‘I’ve been waiting to die since the moment it happened.’ He is, to some extent, at peace while smiling in tears.
Right then, several clues pop up as Will’s doesn’t feel right again, and things repeat in a much more surprisingly violent manner. This climax in the third act feels so earned because its build-up process is carefully narrated before, through the first video David shows about something uncomfortable to watch, then a weird game, followed by Pruitt’s ominous and violently graphic personal tale and eventually a lot of foreshadowing in the meal (the early birthday party for Miguel and David’s ambiguous toast). Speaking of foreshadowing, The Invitation really did make use of this storytelling device, from the coyote Will is forced to kill to David’s comment on that topic. However, after the revelation of David’s true intention, it feels a bit dragged too long, possibly to make the story more viscerally grounded to reality – what normal people would do in the situation. Aside from that, all is tied up by the performance, particularly from Marshall-Green, Blanchard, and Huisman, with an omnious score by Theodore Shapiro.
Though its first 80 minutes could appear to be plodding for anyone too familiar with a conventional thriller experience, The Invitation has successfully delivered a unique and creepy story of grief and despair set in unnervingly cramped ambiance. Also, the experience is not without the support by a strong ensemble of characters, with some horrifying off-screen terror like the fate of one certain character or the spooky final shot. Most of all, the feeling of genuine fear turned out to be the most effective element, only accomplished by Shore’s excellent cinematography.
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