The Invitation, from director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body), is set at one delightfully odd dinner party, where things get stranger and stranger before all hell breaks loose. The tension and intrigue build methodically, and the film flirts with brilliance for as long as it maintains its mystery. With a lot of films I watch via screener (and The Invitation is available on VOD), I have to make a conscious effort not to check my phone or get distracted. This one though, it had me, at least for a while. Because once The Invitation reveals its secrets, it gets a lot less interesting.
The Invitation stars a lot of pretty people — Logan Marshall-Green, Lindsay Burdge, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Mike Doyle — I included links because I’m pretty sure you don’t know who they are. The most famous of them, and probably the most competent actor, is Michiel Huisman, a.k.a. Game of Thrones‘ New Daario, who manages an interesting combination of menace and new agey spiritual bro-ness. But for the most part, the actors have that quality common to a lot of modern horror and thriller casts, where they’re a little too primped and a little too clothing catalogue coordinated, and end up looking like what they are — a collection of cute actors. Sure, they theoretically have individual qualities — gay couple! Asian party girl! chubby guy! — but for the most part they’re this bland, somewhat interchangeable collection of skin-deep “types,” like a reunion of stock photo models.
This isn’t entirely a criticism, because for the most part, The Invitation seems to know its characters are just props. Green’s character, Will, is the protagonist, who, along with his girlfriend, Kira (Corinealdi), has gathered for a reunion with a group of old friends at his old house, where something terrible happened a few years back. The hosts are Will’s ex wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband, David (Huisman). The basic framework is that the night’s guests become increasingly uneasy with the hosts and a few of their strange friends, who may have joined a cult.
Marshall-Green, with his big beard and baritone, seems to have a lot of the trappings of gravitas without much of the personal charisma. As a conduit for our increasing confusion and unease about this creepy party, he works fine. What’s so creepy? Nothing big. It’s a gradual build — bars on the windows. Host locking the door from the inside. Off-puttingly new agey hosts. At one point, while David gives a toast (there are about a million toasts), Will sees a pantsless girl down a hallway, and she seems happy to be noticed. Let me tell you, a mysterious nude-from-the-waist-down girl (I believe it’s called Donald Ducking) is way more compelling than Chekov’s Gun. Kusama is great at building potential energy, methodically puffing up the story like a balloon. Are these people going to f*ck? Fight? Murder each other? All three?
Will starts to fall into the trope of the paranoid guy who realizes something’s wrong but no maybe he’s just paranoid no wait he’s right, and from there the script slips a little. Suddenly it feels like we’re supposed to care about our protagonist’s inner struggle, even though he’s mostly been a set of expository notes with a beard attached up to this point. “My son is dead,” Will rages to one of his pretty pals. “Where am I supposed to put that?”
You know, I’m not sure I really care, guy. Also, stop asking rhetorical questions about a premise we’ve already accepted. The Invitation‘s introspective digression is mercifully brief, but in a movie that otherwise relies on a highwire act of sustained tension, even a tiny stumble can be a big deal. It’s essentially a pretty-people-in-peril movie (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and those perils maintain their power as long as they remain psychological. A monologue John Carroll Lynch delivers is a good example, where he seems calm on the surface while delivering a speech that reveals him as a monster, and the dinner party guests are so blindsided by it they don’t know whether to run screaming or maintain the facade of party etiquette. That’s the dilemma underpinning the entire premise, which is a compelling one. Of course, it helps that it’s John Carroll Lynch delivering it; his entire persona screams deferred menace without him saying a word. Scientists should study whatever it is that makes that guy so terrifying.
Kusama’s handling of those perils once they turn physical, however, is much shakier. Or maybe a mystery is just naturally more compelling than people you don’t care about running. The sexual subplot comes to an abrupt end too, revealing it as a gimmick rather than a theme (no money shot? weak).
Once all the commotion subsides, The Invitation settles in for an ending worthy of its first two acts. It’s one of those pullback reveals that exposes a movie universe that’s much bigger than we thought it was. I love those kinds of endings, that expand the possibilities of the story and inspire you to think even more magically. If only The Invitation‘s clever ending had come a little closer to the tense set-up, there might really have been something here.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.