Directed by Karyn Kusama
Written by Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi
Review by Alex Smith
The Invitation, directed by Karyn Kusama, which released to VOD this April, will hopefully reach a larger audience when it arrives on Netflix this month. The premise is simple enough: Will and his new girlfriend accept an invitation to a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills hosted by Eden, his ex-wife. The two divorced years ago following their son’s death, and with that split their old friends have split off as well. Following a disturbing omen en route to Eden’s house, the couple arrives to cocktails and smiles.
The film begins as something of a Big Chill-style reunion, where the reality of loss casts a painful shadow over old loves and cooling friendships, but two profoundly disinhibited and weirdly quiet guests—new friends of Eden’s—hint that she has been running in stranger circles since remarrying. When Eden and her husband mention their recent embrace of a new religion, the night’s party games take on a doctrinal undertone. Stunningly, the religion has apparently freed Eden from all of the pain of her loss, and as she and her husband pitch their newfound beliefs to their old friends, skepticism, paranoia, and deadliness ensue.
Although Eden’s new religion reeks a little too awfully of “evil death cult” for the viewer to ever buy in, Will’s resistance to her indoctrination comes across as both courageous and tragic. Indeed, his struggle to reject Eden’s offering of peace is at the core of the film. Will’s skepticism is undoubtedly heroically strong, but it also subverts every fleeting moment of joy in the film. Should he hold fast to reality, continuing his humble attempt to restart his broken life? Or could he let go, embracing Eden’s path to enlightenment? While Kusama never asks us to wonder if this cult really has the answers, the film does have us wondering whether Eden’s hippyish view of life in death is what Will really needs. Is he vulnerable enough to believe?
If this all sounds heavy, that’s because it can be. Will and Eden’s loss ripples throughout the entire friend group, and memories of this trauma reveal themselves in occasionally uncomfortable, heaving scenes of remembrance. But the shades of suspense and mystery surrounding this new philosophy—and the growing sense that this party could be in danger—provide levity to the drama, making it as thrilling as it can be wrenching.
All of this couldn’t be executed without strong performances. Kusama’s ensemble cast does an excellent job of creating cringe-ridden moments, where unsteady laughter is followed by crashes into awkwardness. Hushed exchanges are realistic and intense. Logan Marshall-Green’s Will and Tammy Blanchard’s Eden form a nuanced spine for the movie. These richly developed characters and their intertwining histories provide fertile ground for the suspense that unfolds.
This is also a good-looking film: Kusama’s earthy palette adds a foggy warmth to the experience, and subtle shifts in focus give the movie a wine-soaked feel that leaves us doubting Will’s perception of the events that unfold. The filmmakers achieve these elements early on and sustain them, offering a quiet, menacing, and sometimes moving thriller. As such, The Invitation is a film that deserves to be seen and, as word of mouth grows, should earn its place on some “hidden gem” lists in the near future. It is certainly on mine.
Alex Smith is the author of the upcoming novella HIVE from Muzzleland Press. He lives in New York City.