TW: Gore, Gun Violence, Cults // Spoilers Below
The Invitation takes a creeping look at two simple premises: reuniting with forgotten friends and new-age spiritualism. Though one seems a bit scarier than the other, the film heightens social awkwardness to a macabre level that puts an uncomfortable look on when the social taboo of grief is put on public display. The film follows Will (Logan Marshall-Green) who goes to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, whom no one in their circle has seen in two years. Surrounded by old friends of the once couple, her new equally spacey lover, and the trauma that haunts their former house (that she still resides in), Will doesn’t know if the new religion she has adopted during her stint in Mexico is something more sinister or if his cynicism of the present is catching up to him. Audiences find themselves snapped in and out of reality – so far into the unstable protagonist’s head that it’s hard to discern real life, memory, and fatal suspicion. In essence, it is a striking account of grief that director Karyn Kusama brings to life with her exceptional use of a singular location that is a claustrophobic, Los Angeles mansion and an almost entirely self-involved cast of characters.
It just became clear that we had to shoot it in Los Angeles, because even though it is a largely interior space, it just feels like there is something about the mythology of Southern California, the sense of self-reinvention that is promised here to so many people who kind of flock to the city - Karyn Kusama on the location choice
Though sparser and more silent than her other work, The Invitation shows Kusama’s range with drama and horror beyond comedy and harsh action. The film is very reliant on the casual acting with quick moments of madness that confuse the viewer’s perception. Could this all be in Will’s imagination, or is it much more sinister, as suspected? Who is the pair of parents that he keeps thinking back to and the child with it? These questions and more run through your mind while the ensemble is as laid back as can be – playing games and getting drunk like teenagers at a house party. During this, grief is interspersed between the supposed “fun” and hits you in the face, as it does for Will, with flashbacks of his dead son and deceased marriage. In doing so, the film explores the overwhelming effects of being literally stuck in the place of what triggers you most. Also, it shows the battle to suppress this sadness when trying to put on a face of normality to avoid discomfort. While Will attempts to hide his grief and gets ostracized when it starts to show, his ex-wife, Eden’s (Tammy Blanchard) over embrace of pain is accepted because of her relaxed performance of it. Kusama uses reaction to exemplify what is deemed as comfortable and uncomfortable in terms of expressing our pain in society – even if it means one is more harmful than the other.
Kusama also does a great job in balancing the overlapping and strong personalities of the side characters, who work as a chorus against Will through their own willful ignorance. It makes viewers want to shout at the screen at their carefree attitude and politeness when it comes to Eden and David’s weird mindset toward life. Like, when the couple plays a video from their cult of someone dying, despite this being the location where Will and Eden’s son died years ago. The most vibrant and stand-out personality on-screen is John Carroll Lynch, who as we know from American Horror Story, always plays a fantastic, unsuspecting psychopath. His calm demeanor as an eventual killer is striking and hard to watch. Despite his small role, his subtle cruelty is one of the biggest feats of the film.
The slow-burn pacing coupled with the subtle performances make the film a little hard to watch at first because it can feel a little too naturalistic. It does work well to make the audience have doubts about what is happening- is Will just paranoid?- but it also can make the result too obvious since there are no conclusive fake-outs that would have seemingly confirmed Will’s perceived craziness. Instead, they are often just pushed to the side. For example, Eden’s boyfriend, David, locks the door and says it’s because of a previous home invasion. Whether it’s the obvious distrust we feel toward his character because of how ingrained he is in the cult’s mindset or our viewpoint in Will’s head, it’s hard not to believe that David is obviously doing something suspect. Though, it does reinforce the friends' being at fault for acting relatively apathetic to Will despite his obvious discomfort and dismissing some glaring red flags from Eden and David. This back-and-forth gets a little overdone but is incredibly cathartic when backstories and the dirty truth are revealed.
One of the coolest parts of the film is its diversity. Though centering on its white-male protagonist- who isn’t weighed down by toxic masculinity- the film features a very diverse friend group in terms of race, sexuality, and gender. It’s refreshing to see a film that not only reflects this but also doesn’t just kill all the minorities featured as most horror films do. Instead, two of the final three survivors (and an unclear fourth and fifth) are minorities – being a woman of color, a gay man, and possibly two white women. Horror films usually just have one (white) final girl (or occasionally white man) who makes it out alive. It was a pleasant surprise when I had mentally prepared for those specific characters to die. Little nuances like these make a difference in changing the rules of horror and demonstrate the importance of ushering in new and unheard voices and talent to bring a new perspective to the genre.
The Invitation is a critical classic that is crucial for modern horror watching. It's inventive and fresh in its take on grief in a disturbing way that focuses more on settling in your brain than traumatizing you (@ Midsommar). It laid the groundwork for Ari Aster’s popular (literal) cult creepers by taking a more subtle and psychological approach not reliant on the spectacle of gore and body horror. It is a feat in immersive cinema that is incredibly intelligent and well-thought-out. Sit through the ride and you’ll be breathless at your threshold for emotional discomfort.