The less you know about Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, the better. This is true of slow-burn cinema of any stripe, but the difference between Kusama’s film and, say, The House of the Devil is that Kusama’s film is good. She slow-burns to perfection. The key, it seems, to successful slow-burning in narrative fiction is the narrative rather than the actual slow-burn. In the case of The Invitation, that involves a tale of deep and intimate heartache, the kind that none of us hopes to ever have to endure in our own lives. The film taps into a nightmare vein of real-life dread, of loss so profound and pervasive that it fundamentally changes who you are as a human being. That’s where we begin: with an examination of grief.
Where we end is obviously best left unsaid, but endings are generally never an appropriate topic in a review format. Besides, The Invitation is remarkable neither for its ending nor for the direction we take to arrive at its ending. Instead, it is remarkable for its foundation, for all of the substantive storytelling infrastructure that Kusama builds the film upon in the first place. Anybody can crank their movie’s dramatic thermostat past 68 and make the audience sweat in its final 15 minutes. It takes a far more gifted filmmaker to encourage perspiration within the first five instead. If The Invitation’s basic setup makes it sound as though it’s cut from the same well-tread cloth of the most precious indie cinema, consider that a blessing: It means you have less than no idea what Kusama has in store for you.
The film starts in earnest as Will (Logan Marshall-Green in top form) arrives at a dinner party his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), is throwing at what once was their house. He has brought his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), along with him, though you get the sense he’s really going along with her. What guy actively wants to hang out with his ex-wife and her new spouse? That sounds like a stairway descending through just about every major circle of Hell. But Will is dedicated to attending, if only in the pursuit of getting some unspecified catharsis out of the encounter. If there’s a silver lining here aside from Kira, it’s that his friends will all be there, too—Gina (Michelle Krusiec), Ben (Jay Larson), Tommy (Mike Doyle), Claire (Marieh Delfino), Miguel (Jordi Vilasuso). Seems like a safe-enough space.
But of course it isn’t. “Safe” might even be a strong word. Something is undeniably off at Eden’s place, and because Will is the lens through which Kusama’s audience engages with the film, we cannot tell whether that something is Will or if it’s Eden, or if it’s her husband, David (Michiel Huisman), or if it’s their two chums, Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) and Sadie (Lindsay Burge). Everyone else seems fine and dandy, if occasionally perturbed or put off by weird overtures and reflections David makes to his assembled guests. It is Will who is most on edge at his surroundings and his hosts. To the eyes of all gathered, he reads simply as a man who has inserted himself into an uncomfortable situation he isn’t ready to handle. We, on the other hand, know better, or at least we think we do.
It is important to avoid details of The Invitation’s mysteries and questions, but what can be said of the film is that it is empathetic nearly to the point of magnanimity. As much as David, Pruitt, Sadie and Eden each cut figures that range from sinister to merely loopy, we cannot help but see their humanity. By consequence, we cannot readily buy into Will’s mounting suspicions about the quartet, even as Kusama employs cinematic grammar that appears to validate his paranoia. It is, in point of fact, frequently hard to root for Will, or to level with his perspective. He skulks around the hallways of Eden’s home, rooting around through her nightstand drawers, looking for something, anything, to assure himself of, well, what exactly? That she’s just as torn up inside as he is over the tragedy that split them up years prior? That she hasn’t actually moved on from him, from the life they once shared together?
We don’t know. Will probably doesn’t either. And that’s okay: Knowing isn’t part of what makes The Invitation so nerve-racking and pleasing as a sophisticated exercise in genre. Not knowing isn’t it, either, mostly because that would be too coy an assessment to make about a movie that’s this well constructed and this smart. Instead, the pleasure of The Invitation lies in the eerily lush experience of watching Kusama toy with convention. As a director, she lifts the film to peaks of such unbearable tension that you may strain your neck forcing yourself to keep your eyes fixed on the screen. Her talent for sustaining unease is remarkable, but the key to the film is the intimacy of its setting. We feel like we’re intruding on the melancholic privacies of Kusama’s characters, and yet she locks the doors and keeps us trapped inside with them.
There is oh so much more to be said about The Invitation, especially its climax, where all is revealed and we see Will’s fears and Eden’s spiritual affirmations for what they are. Until then you’ll remain on tenterhooks, but to Kusama, jitters and thrills are sensations worth savoring.
Director: Karyn Kusama
Writers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman, John Carroll Lynch, Lindsay Burge, Tommy Doyle, Jay Larson, Michelle Krusiec, Marieh Delfino, Jordi Vilasuso, Rick Yune
Release Date: April 8, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.