The Film: 4.5/5
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) have been invited to an intimate dinner party at the luxurious Hollywood Hills home of Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her husband David (Michiel Huisman). This has proven to be an uncomfortable experience for Will long before he arrives with Kira because years ago he lived in that very same house in happily wedded bliss with Eden. Also in attendance at this party are friends of Eden and David who haven’t seen them in two years. Much has changed for the young couple during that time and what they’ve been up to has provided them with an ulterior motive for throwing the party in the first place.
From the moment Will walks into the house he once called home, he feels awkward and out of place, noticing things that appear strange to him but perfectly normal to everyone else (like David’s habit of locking the doors). Eden and David have also invited Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), friends they first met through a spiritual grief coping group called “The Invitation” that sounds very much like a cult to Will. As the evening progresses, the other guests suspect that they have been invited to the party to hear an extended pitch for membership in the Invitation, but Will eventually realizes that the reason for the supposedly cordial gathering of friends both new and old is far darker and terrifying than anyone could imagine.
It has been ages since a film kept my eyes glued to the screen and my ass literally on the edge of the seat, but The Invitation, the fourth feature from director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body), is just such a film. Working from a screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi – the writing team commonly associated with major studio mediocrities like R.I.P.D., Ride Along, and the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans that received a piss poor post-conversion to 3D in order to make an extra buck – Kusama has whipped together a gutsy, intelligent thriller to rattle the nerves and challenge the mind. Some thrillers rely heavily on the very predictability of their plots to generate audience interest in the unoriginal progression of events to be redeemed by a last minute shocker of a twist, but the simple yet elegant premise of The Invitation grows stranger with each scene and not only demands your undivided attention, but rewards it as well.
The film starts out knee deep in tension that only gets thicker as the story truly gets underway. Kusama and the writers smartly leave much to our imagination for the first two acts as we experience everything that is occurring through the eyes of our haunted hero Will, played with wounded heart and soul by a well-cast Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus). For reasons I wish to not divulge as it would ruin the pleasures of watching The Invitation, Will is clearly the odd man out at Eden and David’s party the very instant he enters their home, a location that quickly unearth some cherished memories soon overwhelmed by buried traumas. One thing Will cannot suppress is his unease at returning to the house and seeing the woman with whom he once shared his life. Adding to his growing apprehension is the sight of Eden oddly at peace with the world and a past that harbors the same tragedy that continues to plague Will to this day. Marshall-Green allows this growing anxiety to register realistically in his eyes and anguished voice rather than overplay crucial dramatic beats when his performance might otherwise be allowed to get away with it.
In spite of his off-putting attitude towards his hosts and the other guests and his confusion at events happening around him, often just beyond the corners of his eyes, Will makes for an ideal audience surrogate and capable lead character, anchoring the story to the ground even during a third act that explodes with violence and a few moments that might cause your heart to leap into your throat as only the finest old school cinematic shockers could accomplish. Kusama’s direction is low-key but confident and captures the claustrophobic intensity that gradually emerges from each delicately constructed scene and suffuses the quietest dialogue exchanges. The house in which most of The Invitation takes place is an amazing location to set a thriller, with unpretentious, tasteful production design allowing the character and narrative development to take center stage and never distracting the viewer from the film’s genuine pleasures which reside in the exemplary writing and ensemble acting.
At the center of The Invitation’s twisting plotline is some headier, thought-provoking thematic material the likes of which are rarely encountered in a film of this sort. Will, Eden, and David are damaged individuals who have found their own ways of dealing with pain and guilt that brought them to their knees in the past. Whereas Will has internalized those emotions to the point he has been rendered a bearded shell of his former shelf, Eden and David have supposedly found solace in the calm wisdom of Dr. Joseph (Toby Huss), whose philosophy is composed of New Age spiritual platitudes filtered through the warped mindset of an End Times prophet who decades ago would have wandering Times Square in a coke-fueled rage wearing little but a sandwich board proclaiming that it was time to prepare to meet thy god. None of the other guests at the party quite understand the purpose of Joseph’s teachings, but they support Eden and David regardless because it matters little in the long run. Coping with tragedy and trauma is one of the toughest things we are called upon to do in life, and if someone we love has found a way to do that and find everlasting comfort as a result, we think nothing of challenging them even if it makes absolutely no sense to us.
Marshall-Green is supported by fine work from Tammy Blanchard (Moneyball) as the ex-wife whose commitment to the Invitation has taken its toll on her, Michiel Huisman (World War Z) as her ambiguously charming new husband, and Emayatzy Corinealdi (Miles Ahead) as Will’s girlfriend. Lindsay Burdge (Frances Ha) is a devilish delight as the feral seductress Sadie with a sugary sweet smile, and John Carroll Lynch (Zodiac) cuts a quietly imposing figure in the role of the mysterious Pruitt. Mike Doyle (Jersey Boys), Jordi Vilasuso (The Lost City), Michelle Krusiec (Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd), Karl Yune (Arrow), and newcomer Jay Larson also contribute strong work in smaller parts. The biggest surprise for me was seeing Toby Huss, an actor known for his comedic performances on King of the Hill and Reno 911 who has also demonstrated healthy dramatic chops on shows like Carnivale and Halt and Catch Fire, in the role of Dr. Joseph, the seemingly benevolent founder of the Invitation. Huss brings paternal grace and warmth to this cult leader seen only through video clips that look like they were created by the same advertising agency that handles the Cialis account but carry with them a nauseating menace that is all too real in today’s world.
The Invitation was filmed digitally in the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and while the cinematography boasts a warm and pleasing color scheme and balanced grain, it also looks disappointingly soft and even waxy at times for 1080p resolution high-definition visuals; texture is difficult to make out even if you squint while standing too close to your television screen. The end result is a solid but unrewarding transfer that could easily be indistinguishable from an early-2000’s video master. Further rendering this Blu-ray an oddity is the presence of an English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track that offers an excellent and immersive sound mix that is only occasionally marred by distortion from a character’s raised voice, but then again that could be simply because most of the dialogue is spoken in hushed tones. The moody, discordant music score and unnerving sound design are presented with a clarity and depth that add to the steadily mounting tension. English, Spanish, French, and German subtitles have also been provided.
Director Kusama is joined by writers/producers Hay and Manfredi for an audio commentary that strikes an informative and conversational tone at the start and maintains it until the very end with little dead air and plenty of warm, witty insight into the independent production and the heady themes at play in the narrative. “The Making of ‘The Invitation’” (10 minutes) is a slim but enjoyable behind-the-scenes featurette that offers only a surface level look into what is discussed in the filmmakers’ commentary track. The obligatory B-roll footage and cast and crew in this feature soundbites at least carry more intellectual weight than you might expect.
Short music videos for the original Craig Wedren songs “Baby You’re Gone” and “O My Child” (2 minutes each), a teaser (30 seconds) and trailer (2 minutes) for The Invitation and trailers for 20,000 Days on Earth, Borgman, Cheap Thrills, The Connection, Spring, and Wake in Fright close out the extras on the Blu-ray disc. Drafthouse has also included a 16-page booklet featuring an essay about the film written by Screen Crush editor and Birth.Movies.Death contributor Britt Hayes and a statement from the director, reversible cover art, a digital download code, and a DVD copy.
The Invitation is a startlingly effective slow burn suspense thriller in the vein of Roman Polanski’s paranoid masterpieces Repulsion and The Tenant and one of the finest examples of the genre made in years. Karyn Kusama’s riveting film gets shortchanged on this Blu-ray in the picture and sound quality department but gets some decent supplements to make up for the technical deficiencies somewhat. This release from Drafthouse Films comes highly recommended on the strength of the film alone.