the_invitation_1Year: 2015
Director: Karyn Kusama
Writer(s): Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: Unrated
Color, 100 mins

Synopsis: While attending a dinner party at his former home, a man thinks his ex-wife and her new husband have sinister intentions for their guests. (Source)

Here’s your warning: Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. Don’t watch a trailer, don’t read this review and don’t let any of your friends tell you anything about it. If you’re still here or have already seen the film, then I’ll tread lightly as I gush about how utterly brilliant it is on every level. It’s a work of finely-tuned psychological precision, sophisticated and methodical but also raw and emotionally unhinged. Told all within a single setting, Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi build one of the most suffocating experiences of the year, one that transforms continually by earning each tonal shift, along the way toying with both the viewer and its characters with paranoid abandon. This is the real deal folks, it doesn’t mess around, and is a fierce examination of crippling grief and the courage it takes to stare it in the face.

The premise is intimate, but with massive implications. Sometime after a tragedy, a small group of estranged friends are invited to reunite at a lavish dinner party in the Hollywood Hills. At the center of it all, is Will (Logan Marshall-Green), called back to his old home where his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and new husband David (Michiel Huisman) have started over. With everyone gathered, Will can’t help but feel something off about the entire thing and understandably questions the hospitality of his ex and her new beau amidst an increasingly claustrophobic environment. There’s also an unshakable feeling of distrust amongst the friends, and as the uneasy party progresses, Will struggles with his paranoia and his past.

Through an infinitely nuanced plot, Kusama creates a whirlwind environment rife with themes of loss and grief with no equal, all while examining the ways we bury or effectively ignore parts of ourselves to cope with the traumas of our past. In doing so, she shows how psychological violence is the most terrifying kind there is, chronicling a mental breakdown which crosses genres and holds an unsettling layer of dread over every action no matter how big or small. It can be said that the hardest thing to face is ourselves, and it’s this narrative through line that speaks volumes against each character’s weighted actions.

the_invitation_2Also impressive is how the film never succumbs to gimmicks, jump scares or the usual types of thriller/horror tropes. Instead, it challenges our expectations at every turn thanks to a combination of perfectly composed visuals contrasted with universal fears. Kusama frames the setting’s constricted environment through moody compositions, vivid close-ups and impeccable sound design to put us directly into Will’s increasingly hostile head space. This tight control over every aspect of the film leaves no loose ends and results in a confidence that’s easy to get immersed in – as the lavish house imprisons and reflects the fragility of each character, Kusama pays off a slow burn with a savage and unexpected end.

Though most of the story is seen through Will’s eyes, this really is an ensemble piece in which every character is so fully formed and brought to life with an electric group of diverse performers. Logan Marshall-Green of course headlines the entire thing, putting the audience in his shoes while still finding ways to make him stand on his own. There’s a genuine struggle in the actor’s eyes at any given moment, and as his character retraces his grief and sorrow, the more we’re unwittingly pulled into his nightmare. Other standouts are Tammy Blanchard, who plays Will’s wife Eden and Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman, playing an eerie opposite of Will with David. There’s a lot going on between just these three performers, and they create an triangle of undeniable anxiety. Lindsay Burdge as the flirtatious Sadie and John Carroll Lynch as the intimidating Pruitt are great too, although it would be a disservice to not mention how every person in the film (including a few not mentioned here) each carry their own weight and are integral to the whole.

The Invitation takes a look at how we can loose a part of ourselves and forget who we are. As a resonant piece of work that is very deep, it’s also surprisingly accessible and thrilling, balancing genuine drama with catharsis and fascinating characters with profound wounds. Kusama proves herself to be a master of the genre, delivering a twisted narrative that challenges as much as it excites – it’s simply a perfect exercise in sustained dread that’ll leave you begging for more.