Rating in Stars: ***½ (out of ****)
Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman, Michelle Krusiec
Director: Karyn Kusama
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 04/08/16 (limited)
(Note: It is impossible to discuss The Invitation without potential spoilers. Part of the film is about the inevitable outbreak of climactic violence, but I have done my utmost not to give away the film’s motivation to get to that point. Proceed with caution if you must, but you might want to see the film before reading this review.)
The Invitation gains most of its considerable mileage from moments of silence and consideration. It’s difficult to talk about the film’s achievements without delving too deeply into spoilerish territory, but let it be noted that screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi are dealing with heavy thematic material here, and their movie climaxes in an even more desperate emotional state. Yes, this is a psychological thriller that adds up to a scene of extended violence, but the sense of inevitably reaching that violence is more upsetting than the ultimate shift toward it. When it comes, the narrative has earned it, and the intimacy of the act makes it all the more appalling.
It helps, too, in a feeling-of-helplessness sort of way, that the characters feel human from the moment we meet them. After a highly suggestive prologue involving our principal protagonist (who leads what ultimately becomes something of an ensemble) and his wife hitting a wolf on their way to the house in and around which the rest of the film will take place, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) arrive as his old place of residence. It was the family home until tragedy struck (We see flashes of a birthday party and some commotion; our imagination goes into overdrive with details involving, perhaps, a piñata), and Will hasn’t been back inside its walls since then. It’s painful, having to return to this place, like rubbing salt on a wound that may never truly heal.
It’s about to become unthinkably worse. Will has been invited to this house, which was once his own with ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard), by the woman herself, who has settled down with a new beau named David (Michael Huisman) and reappeared after two years of being in Central America. They’ve brought back with them a newly found wisdom–or so it seems–borne of a desire to let go of the material things and all the usual trappings of a cult. A disconcerting and disturbing video tells another story, and the party that has formed–consisting of mutual friends played by the likes of Michelle Krusiec, Mike Doyle, Jordi Vilasuso, Jay Larson, Marieh Delfino, and Karl Yune, all inhabiting their roles very well–suddenly feels like a group of incarcerated victims of kidnap.
David keeps the doors locked, claiming local robberies as the reason why. There are a couple of strangers in their presence, including a free spirit named Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and the soft-spoken Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). Will questions why, exactly, these intruders upon what is supposed to be a nostalgic evening with old friends are present as company, and Eden simply won’t allow him to question it (She slaps another guest when he suggests the group’s lessons are a bunch of baloney). The evening becomes downright nightmarish–and, later, in a different way–but there is more at stake here than simple, genre-related matters of payoff to build-up.
The screenwriters and director Karyn Kusama do an superb job of following through with the inevitable, and the performances do most of the legwork on this score. Marshall-Green, in particular, is superb at allowing the audience to question whether Will’s suspicion is legitimate or his own psyche. Blanchard is very good as a woman barely veiling her own shock and grief at the loss of a child. Lynch is unnerving as Pruitt, able to convey threat and detached amiability without so much as a shift in expression. After the potential for violence becomes active during the climax, he final shot introduces an apocalyptic and pitiless element into the thematic structure of The Invitation, and it’s downright terrifying to consider.