One of the most talked about and anticipated festival films of the year is Karyn Kusama’s stunning thriller The Invitation. The film is a gut-wrenching, nail biting work of drama and horror; one where Kusama manages to ratchet up the tension with each passing moment until it becomes unbearable.
Two years have passed since the now divorced couple Will and Eden lost their son in a tragic accident. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) has moved on in superficial ways: he’s taken a new job, come to terms with the dissolution of his marriage and taken a new partner Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) but he still carries an enormous amount of baggage in the forms of guilt and grief over his loss. With the help of David, her new partner she met in grief counseling, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) seems to have moved on, and after two years off the grid, she and David invite Will and their former circle of close friends to the house for a dinner party. However what should be a light evening of drinking expensive wine and catching up with old friends has a sinister undercurrent that effects every moment.
Kusama rarely allows the audience a chance to catch its collective breath. Before we even receive a proper introduction of Will and Kira, Will is forced to mercy kill a coyote that jumped in front of his car. The idea of being put out of one’s hurt and misery is revisited throughout the film and serves at the crux of the story. From the moment the couple arrives at Eden’s soiree it becomes obvious that something is hinky about the whole affair. The evening feels less like a party and more like a recruitment drive for a religious quasi-cult that the couple claim allowed them to let go of all their feelings of grief, anger and guilt in order to live a life of happiness in the here and now. The video the guests sit through contains all the charm of a snake oil salesmen convention and ends with a woman surrounded by other sect members breathing her final breaths. Rather than relieve tension, David and Eden add to it with minor annoyances and inconveniences that add up. David keeps the house exits locked at all times, explaining there has been a rash of break-ins in the neighborhood but never elaborating. The hosts involve the guests in party games that grow more awkwardly confessional with each passing round. The inclusion of a pair of fellow sect members do nothing to quell Will’s growing suspicions. The addition of sect members Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), hyper sexualized, free spirited sect member and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) as a hulking, soft spoken mountain of a man with a horrific back story add to the discomfort of the partygoers and the audience.
The first hour of The Invitation offers up brilliant moments of claustrophobia and awkward tension. It’s obvious from the outset that the party is not on the up and up and things are going to end badly. Kusama uses the audience’s anticipation against them, creating an unbearably tense first hour that had me inching further and further to the edge of my seat with each passing moment. Kusama allows each of the obvious moments where things should devolve into a riot pass by without comment, extending the trail of gunpowder to the powder keg until that inevitable explosion hits. When David and Eden’s ultimate motivations do arrive, the violence hits with maximum impact. To reveal the details of the final act would rob the audience of the surprises they contain, but suffice to say Kusama manages to match the impact on screen with whatever results you imagined would occur as you waited with bated breath.
The Invitation is more than the sum of its violent climax. Kusama offers an earnest and moving portrait on the individual and collaborative ways we deal with grief. Of all the moments of The Invitation, the one that stuck with me the hardest is Will’s quiet, sober confessional to Kira that since the day he lost his son he has done nothing except wait to die. Of all the human emotions, grief is the most gut wrenching, toughest one to work through. While we as individuals all struggle with the emotion in our own way, there exists a tendency to force our way on others as the “right” way. The inability of Will and Eden to share their burden is what drove the couple apart and it’s made all the more heartbreaking by the dynamic chemistry between Marshall-Green and Blanchard, especially during the flashbacks of the duo in happier times Kusama judiciously places throughout the first two acts. The inability to reconcile their shared emotions but different internal processing of them drive the two apart and eventually enables tragedy. Will feels on the verge of a breakdown, distrustful of his once close associates and detached from the proceedings. His demeanor stands out with the calm, zen-like quality of his ex, as Eden espouses the virtues of her group, and how it has enabled her to move on. Both claim to have dealt with the loss of their boy, but the both carry immense baggage that they cannot unload.
After a strong run through the festival circuit, The Invitationhas found a home with Drafthouse Films and will be available early spring 2016. If you enjoy your horror with a more adult bent to it, then seek out The Invitation the first day it’s made available to you. Equal parts horrific and tragic, the film ends with a gorgeous reveal that kicks the insular horror of the film wide open, and will stick in your craw long afterwards.