Review: Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation

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Will and Kira drive along dreamily. The topic turns to their destination, and Will is coaxed into recalling his past. Screech. Bam. Coyote. Dead. The omen is real. Don’t go back there. 

The Invitation doesn’t go very long without dread, its dreamy atmosphere—like the foreboding L.A. seclusion—just too close to a nightmare for comfort. It’s a painful situation, after all. Will (a bearded, grief-weary Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are headed to Will’s former house, a home he shared with ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and their late son. Following the boy’s death, Eden took off, and here she is two years later, forcing a reunion of friends and spouses and introducing them all to David (Michael Huisman), her new husband and their newfound spirituality.

Karyn Kusama’s return, following 2009’s energized, biting, sweet Jennifer’s Body, is by comparison a small, intimate affair. Almost too much so. Kusama’s controlled grasp on tone and atmosphere is ever tightening, the hefty themes of working through grief with religion informing the increasing danger. Will is still in the throes of his sorrow, his body a portrait of bereavement, but one that offers clarity and blunt words. Arriving at his home, he’s greeted by old friends who strive to push past the discomfort of their reunion and the bizarre nature of their hosts. And just as they gloss over disquieting and questionable language (“we’re ready for you now,” “that’s why we chose you”), so has Eden turned away from her past, embracing a doctrine that her and David deign to push on their guests.

Throughout it all, Will is questioning, and Kusama edges and singles him out in frames and tableau. When David locks the guests in, Will is somehow the only one willing to call outs its eeriness. His sadness may be too raw for some, but it’s certainly healthier than Eden, who Blanchard embodies in an ethereal white dress, gliding in a medicated, delusional Hollywood glamour cloud. Eden is the Sunset Boulevard of suppressing the memory of a dead child, a perfect parallel in a film about cult indoctrination, surrounded the cult of LA. Her new husband, a taller, more ideal version of her ex, inhabits what was once Will’s home. She has fashioned an illusory new life.

Masterfully, Kusama and writers Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi are still able to leave the viewer questioning Will’s position, his sanity and his growing unease. They do so by getting at something significant in adult culture: polite refrain. For its heavy, somber thoughts on loss and the dangers of new religion, The Invitation is also incisive about the dinner party unwillingness to face facts, to keep things as polite as possible. Will and Eden’s old friends want to keep the party focused on the reunion, and in an effort to keep the more tremendous subjects at bay, continue to humor Eden, David, their clearly unhinged houseguest (a wild-eyed and captivating Lindsay Burdge, appropriately given a Manson-nodding name with Sadie) and imposing fellow believer Pruitt (john Carroll-Lynch). Yes, they’ll watch a sort of indoctrination video in which someone dies before their eyes. Yes, they’ll listen to belief structure. Because who wants to seem like the crazy person? The downer? The paranoid freak? Will’s got that covered. The hallucinatory introduction of Sadie, and his intruding flashbacks only supporting the idea he’s imbalanced.

This all simmers. Kusama lets this growing dread play out in wide shots and close-ups patiently, only going hardcore with motion until the movie explodes into violence. Even then, the chaos is so tightly orchestrated, a jaunt down a hallway spinning round to catch a primal Burdge in one of the film’s great visceral moments. Though affecting and jarring, this last act is also something of a pulpy relief. The Invitation is a startlingly adult thriller that, unlike Eden and her guests, is willing stare down the weight our lives can bear.

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Weekend: Nov. 15, 2018, Nov. 18, 2018

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