Do you remember Jonestown? It’s probably the thing that gave mainstream culture their first real look at a cult and the horrible things that can happen if you join. I mean, the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” is now a common expression. Since then, people have done very interesting things with cults in movies. Movies like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Sound of My Voice have really stuck with me for their depiction of how someone gets roped into a cult, what makes an engaging cult leader, and all the moral and ethical questions behind them. I wish The Invitation had more of that to chew on. Instead, there’s the unwavering idea of “cult equals bad”, making for no grey area to explore, but the gripping third act may help you forget the rather dull first hour.
After two years of no contact with anyone, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) comes back to town with a new husband (Michiel Huisman). The two throw a dinner party, inviting all their friends, including Eden’s ex-husband Will (Logan Marshall-Green) with whom she lost a son. Will is struggling day-by-day to cope, even years later, but Eden is surprisingly all smiles. Come to find out she, along with her new husband, suspicious friend (John Carroll Lynch), and even more suspicious house guest (Lindsay Burdge), is in a cult called “The Invitation”. Most of the guests are trying to have a good time, but Will senses danger in the air.
And why shouldn’t he feel suspicious? One of the first things at the party is they show everyone a recruitment video of a woman dying. Who shows that at a dinner party unless nefarious things are afoot? The fact no one else sees this is extremely frustrating. They are passing out expensive wine at a rapid pace, but if that’s what is to explain people’s stupid behavior, that is very unsatisfying.
The next hour is dedicated to Will rightfully questioning all the odd things happening at the party and everyone telling him to “calm down.” You can do that a couple times, but not for the majority of the running time. The tension director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, Aeon Flux) is trying to create only flatlines as she continues to mine the same territory over and over again. You have to build on it to make it interesting.
THis is why the third act is so strong. After what is supposed to be Jonestown 2.0, the stakes spike through the roof, as the brutal violence escalates. It creates a new and refreshing source of tension that had previous expired. Just from a visually constructed perspective, it is terrific, and comes close to saving the movie.
The cast are all very good, though aside from Will and Eden there is not much shading to the characters. Marshall-Green is appropriately angst-ridden and manic, and Blanchard’s repressed sorrow-with-a-smile-on-top is a bit creepy. Lindsay Burdge is particularly good as the woman totally consumed by The Invitation and is a bit more than cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.
The big technical problem I had was the sound. The quality of the dialogue sounded like they got the cheapest, tinniest lavalier microphones they could find and did nothing in post-production to fix any of it. It felt like almost all of the dialogue was recorded at peaked levels and no one checked the recorder to change it. Sometimes characters would yell and the dialogue would be incomprehensible. People complain about the sound in Interstellar, but this is a real sound issue. It may be the sound in the theater was bad, but it sounded like a source problem.
The Invitation wants to be a slow burn thriller, but it greatly over estimates how much tension it creates. The great ending may be enough for you to forgive the dullness of what came before it, but I couldn’t get past it. The premise they are dealing with is interesting and its look at the various ways to deal with grief could make for good drama, but it all kind of falls flat. Pair that with bad audio, and it is safe to say I probably would have rather been asleep than be up for this midnight movie.