Director: Karyn Kusama
Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lindsay Burdge, Mike Doyle, Jay Larson, Jordi Vilasuso, Marieh Delfino, Michelle Krusiec, John Carroll Lynch, Karl Yune, Toby Huss
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 4/8/16 (limited); 4/15/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 14, 2016
Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi's screenplay for The Invitation lays all of its cards on the table early. From the perspective of looking at the film as a thriller, that approach should sink it, because the potential suspense should, in theory, be eliminated by way of possibly knowing all of the story's components and seeing how they fit together by the end of the first act. That is not the case here, though, because the film has other things on its mind beyond orchestrating the inevitable confrontation of the climax.
The pieces may be clear in that specific regard, but they're intentionally hazier in the build-up. The build-up is about confrontations of an entirely different variety—about grief, about how everyone's experience with it is different, and, as a result, about how no one can truly understand the way another person processes it.
What's most impressive about the film is how the screenplay and director Karyn Kusama play its two, seemingly opposed narratives against each other in order to heighten the impact of each one. It is a story of the lingering effects of loss, set against the backdrop a friendly dinner party where something doesn't seem quite right.
Everyone present is keenly attuned to that fact. The reasons are plentiful. The hosts suddenly have returned to their social sphere after having disappeared for two years. The party seems to have come out of the blue. One of the hosts has invited her ex-husband. She has since re-married, and the ex is bringing his girlfriend. The house is where the formerly married couple shared a happy life together, until a tragedy that neither spouse could fully comprehend or cope with struck.
That, it would seem, would be enough for this affair to be an awkward one. It's especially uncomfortable for Will (a great Logan Marshall-Green), the ex-husband, who knows that almost everyone at the house for the party knows the darkest moment of his life. He's also certain that none of them really knows what that moment has done to him—how, even years later, it haunts him still and how he believes that he is only person in the world who knows what that feels like.
The only other person whom he believes could have understood that feeling is Eden (Tammy Blanchard), his wife from what must feel like a lifetime ago. Their marriage failed. He has regrets piled upon regrets, and his feelings of guilt about the causes of his losses bleed together. Being back in the house only makes it worse. Around every corner, behind every door, and out there in the backyard are the ghosts of memories, serving as constant reminders of his real anguish and perceived failure.
Eden, apparently, has moved on from all of that. He resents her for it, and he doesn't quite hide it. Is that the real reason for the uncomfortable air of the party, or is there something more insidious happening behind the scenes?
The film takes Will's perspective as the night unfolds. The decision works in two ways: It highlights the thematic undercurrent of the film to the point that it feels like the most important element of the story, and it serves as an adept form of misdirection. When combined, those two observations might make it seem as if Hay and Manfredi's screenplay is being manipulative. To an extent, that's true, but the key is that there is nothing cynical behind the manipulation. The film empathizes with Will's turmoil, even as it uses his experience to distract us from—and to make us doubt our conviction about—what's happening underneath the surface of this story.
On the surface, there is the dinner party. Eden and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) are holding it as a reunion for old friends and an introduction for new ones. Will brings his compassionate girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi). The two have an encounter with a coyote on the way there that sets up a lot more than we might anticipate.
Of the old friends, there are a happy couple (Tommy and Miguel, played by Mike Doyle and Jordi Vilasuso) and a married man who's having problems with his wife (Ben, played by Jay Larson), as well as Claire (Marieh Delfino) and Gina (Michelle Krusiec). They're waiting on one friend who's always late. In the category of new friends, there are Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), a free-spirited woman, and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), a man of few words but at least one major secret, which he seems overly eager to share in the right company.
The old friends, understandably, don't seem sure how to interact with Will. The new ones seem a bit too comfortable in trying.
Eden and David met these new friends during their long stay in Mexico as part of a group that helps people deal with grief. The old friends are suspicious because it sounds like a cult, although the practices seem to have worked for the participants in front of them. They are true believers in the cause—so much so that Eden slaps Ben when he suggests that it might be a bunch of hooey.
We think we know where this is going, especially after the couple shows a promotional video for the group, which concludes with an example showcasing its belief in how grief is ultimately "cured." It's an inescapably cynical belief system that contradicts everything Will has learned from his own experience. Because we're seeing things from Will's point of view, the question is whether there is something genuinely sinister behind the group's practices or if Will is creating what he wants to see out of some spiritual, New Age nonsense, which seems to be all the rage in certain, affluent segments of Los Angeles.
After a while, the central question does not matter so much, because the film transcends its simple, straightforward mystery (as well as the individual components of it, such as the unseen fate of a friend who is escorted to her car and whether or not the always-late friend was really late this time). Through the basics of that mystery, The Invitation shows an immense deal of confidence in addressing the uncertainty of the grieving process, and as the film pushes the cards on the table into closer view, it is equally confident in placing the characters' conflicting beliefs surrounding that process into a near-apocalyptic context.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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