Studio: Drafthouse Films
Director: Karyn Kusama
Writer: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Producer: Martha Griffin, Matt Manfredi, Phil Hay, Nick Spicer
Stars: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lindsay Burdge, Mike Doyle, Jay Larson, Michelle Krusiec, Karl Yune, Jordi Vilasuso, Marieh Delfino, Toby Huss, John Carroll Lynch
A man suspects his ex-wife and her new husband may have devilish plans in store for their unsuspecting dinner party guests.
It’s been two years since Eden was last seen by anyone, including her ex-husband Will. The tragic death of their young son Ty not only drove a divisive wedge into their marriage, it drove Eden to attempt suicide in grisly fashion. However, the couple’s eventual spilt was amicable enough that Will and his new girlfriend Kira now find themselves as invitees to a homecoming celebration of sorts. Eden and her new husband David are finally ready to resurface in Los Angeles by opening their home and reconnecting with the friends Eden left behind.
Returning to a house haunted by painful memories is uncomfortable for Will, but what takes place once the party is underway truly shakes his senses. Eden and David have a peculiar houseguest named Sadie, and an even more peculiar new friend named Pruitt. The unlikely foursome met as members of The Invitation, a fringe philosophy group dedicated to counseling broken people through grief and suffering. The New Age mindset appears to have worked too, as Eden has not beamed from a smile this bright since before despair destroyed her life. Still, Will wonders if that uneasy smile might hide sinister intentions.
As laughter and wine are shared amongst the partygoers, seemingly harmless moments shape into shadowy clues fueling Will’s unshakable suspicion that all may not be what it seems. Is Will’s own fractured mind spiraling into hysteria or do Eden and David have devious plans in store for their unsuspecting dinner guests?
Constructed around a foundation of anticipation, Karyn Kusama’s exceptional thriller “The Invitation” epitomizes the concept of “slow burn.” You won’t find fast gratification here. Like the uncertain intentions of possibly deceitful party hosts, the horror remains hidden, yet always bubbling furiously beneath the surface and aching to burst without warning. Suspense is built on whispers, shadows, nuance, mood, and movements in the background. “The Invitation” gradually unfolds in a space where every innocuous action, glance, and word teases duplicitous motives while bathing the scenery in an unsettling atmosphere of dread, doubt, and impending doom.
The film's ability to weave its hypnotic web begins with a fantastic ensemble cast. Eden and David's dinner party is populated by a robust roster of a dozen guests, which initially feels overweight, yet every one of them becomes integral to the plot's movement. No one is underused, no one is unimportant, and everyone provides a purpose. Characters are also diverse. For instance, Will is in an interracial relationship and one of the core couples is gay, though it never reads as stunt casting for the sake of fulfilling a phantom quota. These are just the best actors for the roles.
Tammy Blanchard shines as Eden. The perfect pout on her face simultaneously suggests beauty, conviction, fragility, and lost hope, which is precisely required to convey Eden’s complicated emotional arc. And whether it is Arthur Leigh Allen in David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” Twisty the Clown on “American Horror Story,” or even Drew Carey’s cross-dressing brother, no one plays dual identity roles quite like John Carroll Lynch. His inherent ability to portray the friendly Everyman who masks a dark side alter ego gives mild-mannered Pruitt an edge of steel-trap danger warning Will and the audience to always be on alert.
Falling under the film’s spell requires being driven by a desire to learn what really lurks underneath each odd gesture and possibly insidious stare. “The Invitation” takes cues from the very best of 1970s paranoid thrillers, including “Rosemary’s Baby” (review here). Imagining the motivations behind how everyone looks at one another while slowly creeping through Eden’s dimly lit house brings to mind the same styling Roman Polanski used when Rosemary’s inner wheels were spinning, but secret truths were always just out of earshot or concealed around corners.
If the script has a weak point, it is that it occasionally cheats to keep the validity of David’s suspicions submerged in ambiguity. Timing of certain beats such as the revelation explaining a certain guest’s untimely arrival are more than a smidge convenient. However, “The Invitation” nevertheless capitalizes on these setups, natural and manufactured, in a manner that makes the journey as quietly compelling as the destination is feverishly explosive.
Tightly wound and tightly executed, “The Invitation” is a nerve-rattling experience about how grief makes us susceptible to seduction and how misguided beliefs can corrupt human behavior. With a devilish ending you are certain to bring home with you, “The Invitation” encapsulates cinematic suspense excellence from the first frame to the last. This is how “slow burn” takes an intentionally torturous wick to a violently erupting conclusion with true efficiency and exhilarating effectiveness.
Review Score: 95