Plenty of films have mined awkward dinner parties for the sake of laughs. Forced small talk, unwanted reunions, and the occasional clashing of personalities, all heightened by the presence of alcohol: it's a situation ripe for uncomfortable comedy. But with "The Invitation," director Karyn Kusama ("Girlfight," "Jennifer's Body," and "Æeon Flux") has something else in mind entirely, as a swanky Los Angeles dinner party among eight estranged friends gradually descends into paranoia, fear, and violence.
As the film opens, Will (Logan Marshall-Green, "Prometheus") and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi, who can also currently be seen as Miles Davis' first wife in "Miles Ahead") are on their way to attend a dinner party hosted by Will's ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) at the chic Hollywood Hills home Will and Eden once shared. The evening is meant to be a reunion between old friends and loved ones with whom the couple has been out of touch, and to celebrate their recent return from a lengthy, off-the-grid trip to Mexico.
There are obvious reasons for Will to dread an evening with an ex and her new husband, but even from the start, things don't feel right. From Eden's vacant, unnatural smile to the way the home's tasteful redecoration doesn't quite cover up his memories of the past, everything puts Will on edge. Will finds himself suspicious of the couple's true motives, his paranoia exacerbated by the presence of two strangers -- Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) and Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) -- who Eden and Will claim to have met while in Mexico. Then David sits the group down and shows them one rather unnerving video.
Even as the evening grows more and more odd, Will's friends wave off his fears: "Yeah, they're a little weird, but this is L.A." Meanwhile the script, by Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay -- writers of Kusama's "Æon Flux" as well as the "Ride Along" movies, of all things -- casts enough doubt that we question how reliable Will actually is. Fragmented glimpses of his memories fill in the tragic details that ended his marriage to Eden; they aren't treated as surprise revelations, but give us insight into our protagonist's emotional state, and tie into the film's explorations of the various ways we deal with grief and trauma. Green's excellent performance adds depth to a character we can never quite get a proper read on.
Through it all, everyone attempts to stay on their best behavior, but the decorum can't last as the film transitions from a psychological thriller into a domestic horror story. Admittedly, it gets increasingly difficult to believe that everyone would stick around at this particular soiree. The friends stay well beyond the point that common sense would have told most people to get the hell out of there, and if you're so inclined, it's easy to read the film as a pointed comment on our general obsession with civility. Whether it's out of politeness or an ingrained sense of propriety, we can be so afraid to avoid rocking the boat that the actual crazies among us get tolerated. That idea is taken to extremes here, but for the most part it works.
I did find myself wishing for a few more zigs and zags to the story; if you think you've figured out where things are headed early on, you're probably right. On the other hand, it's a nice change for this type of film to not rely solely on twists and surprises in order to hold everything together.
Undeniably, "The Invitation" works as well as it does because of Kusama's direction. She does a wonderful job ratcheting up the tension and claustrophobia on the way toward the eventual payoff; the journey would be more than entertaining enough on its own. She's able to create a mood of gradually mounting dread while also nailing small but crucial details, like the way she allows us to get a sense of the house's layout so that when it becomes crucial later on, we know exactly who is where. Working with cinematographer Bobby Shore, the director incorporates shadows beautifully, and once things start to get weird, she keeps the camera trained on her actors' faces, picking up the thoughts the characters are too afraid to say out loud. Even better, Kusama finds the perfect final shot to end the story on a fantastically chilling note.