Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard) are a divorced couple that haven’t seen each other in the last two years. Sadly this is because of the accidental death of their young son Ty (Aiden Lovekamp), which eventually led to Eden attempting to take her own life not long after. But time mends all wounds, which leads Will & his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to accept an invitation from Eden and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) to dinner to reconnect with Eden and some of her new friends. That’s the very simple setup of The Invitation, the new film from director Karyn Kusama. But it really isn’t as simple of a setup as it initially seems to be, and that’s what makes the film work so well.
When Will and Kira arrive at the house, they’re introduced to Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). Will immediately senses something is just a bit off with both of them, and when Eden tells him that they all met as members of a philosophy group called “The Invitation”, he becomes even more suspicious. The group counsels people through grief and mental anguish, and it seems to be working quite well for Eden, as she wears a near constant beaming smile. But Will begins to suspect that her smile is just a mask for something far more sinister. As will and the other guests sit down to drink wine and talk, he begins to grow ever more suspicious of the group and his surroundings. But Will is still going through an emotional upheaval, and being back at the house where his son died weighs heavy on his mind. Is it the grief he’s going through that’s making him suspect everyone around him, or are his suspicions correct?
The Invitation can pretty much call itself the poster boy for slow burn horror/suspense films, because it takes its sweet time getting to its grisly finale. And while this might be a hindrance for some films, the script here (by Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi) is something really special. It’s very talky, but all of that dialogue leads the audience to a better understanding of the characters and what makes them tick. The dialogue is so good, and the actors so natural that at times I felt like I was sitting at the dinner table with everyone else, feeling just as uneasy as Will is feeling. But as good as the dialogue is, if the actors speaking it aren’t up to the task of making it sound genuine, then it’s all for naught. Luckily, director Kusama has assembled a first class ensemble that goes the extra mile to make it all sound true. Logan Marshall-Green is one of our truly under appreciated actors in my opinion, he’s never given a bad performance in a film, yet he isn’t on the “A” list as of yet. Tammy Blanchard’s visage is near luminous here, but as the film proceeds you begin to notice chinks in her armor. What’s amazing about her performance is how you can literally see her character slowly begin to crack under the pressure of what she knows is going to happen. Her face literally changes as the film continues, but there’s no makeup involved-she’s doing it all by herself and it’s amazing to see. But as great as these performances are, the film belongs to John Carroll Lynch. His size is threatening, yet his genial personality throws you off. Here he underplays the character of Pruitt, but after awhile he begins to come out of that low key performance and becomes something altogether terrifying towards the end.
There are other guests, and the script does justice to all of them, so everyone gets a moment or two in the spotlight to shine. Additionally, the characters are nicely varied, Will & Kira are an interracial couple. There’s also a gay couple and an Asian couple, making for a very nice mixture of race/sexuality that never becomes the focus of the film. Everyone is very comfortable with everyone else, race/sexual preferences be damned (as it should be). But as good as The Invitation is, I did have a few problems with it. First off, it takes so much time to establish itself as a sort of paranoid thriller that I fear a lot of viewers will be turned off by it and not give it a fair shake. I didn’t mind because I was genuinely interested in Will’s character arc, and wanted to find out how it all ends up, but I couldn’t blame anyone for bailing on it after 30 minutes or so. Additionally, I figured out the finale at about the 3/4 mark of the film when Will notices someone doing something very suspicious. I won’t say what Will sees, but I think most of you will notice and summarily ask questions about the significance of the act. It didn’t ruin the film for me, not at all. But I hate it when I’m right about an ending before I see it.
The finale of The Invitation is worth the wait though, especially if you’re looking for some gruesome shenanigans. It becomes extremely tense and emotionally draining, and what’s really great about it all is that it happens quite suddenly & unexpectedly. I for one was quite surprised at what was happening, and all credit to Kusama for really keeping the film chugging along at its slow burn pace until the slam bang finale. She really turns up the flame for the the final 20 minutes, and it all works quite beautifully. The film’s final image is also quite memorable and chilling, as a matter of fact, it’s probably the most indelible image I’ve seen in a film this year.
Like I said earlier, The Invitation is a slow film, quite possibly too slow for some of you. But I implore all of you to give it a chance, and let it work its way under your skin. It’s a marvelously downbeat film that’ll keep you riveted to your seat if you allow it to. Don’t miss it, it’s easily one of my favorite films of the year so far.
The Invitation (4 / 5)