The Invitation, 2015
* * * *
Dir. Karyn Kusama
Currently On-Demand and Amazon VOD
A reference point for approaching The Invitation is 2013’s Coherence: both are low-budget genre films centered around dinner parties and have quite a bit of scope and imagination despite the small, domestic settings. In The Invitation, Will, and girlfriend Kira, have been invited to a party by his ex-wife (Gina) and her new boyfriend at Will and Gina’s old house in the Hollywood hills. Will and Gina divorced after the tragic death of their young son, and have invited friends from their grief support group together for this party; none of them have seen Gina in two years. The question of whether The Invitation is a horror/thriller film or not is not just an issue for reviewing or categorizing it but central to the experience of the majority of the film. Is there something sinister about this party or is Will just not psychologically ready to be back in his old home, with his ex-wife? Writers Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay know audience expectations and do a fantastic job setting up, anticipating, embellishing, and frustrating them.
Once again, the question of genre may be a hindrance to many viewers. The film has about a 70 minute set-up, so I can understand a horror fan turning it off because “it’s just people talking.” But director Karyn Kusama does an exceptional job drawing dread and tension out of words and small actions (there’s a balance displayed here because one could also go too far and by trying to add dread to the quotidian turn the film into camp or melodrama; cf. last year’s Queen of Earth), putting us into Will’s anxious state of mind (as someone with social anxiety disorder, at times I could totally relate to Will, and his worst-case-scenario thinking at a social gathering). It’s an impressive feat to make a film that’s terrifying before we know whether or not we should be terrified yet (or at all). The scene in which we find out whether or not Will’s suspicions were correct or not might be the most impressively executed scene I’ve seen all year.
The film has enough substance to it so that even though some of the characters aren’t as developed as others, the conversations feel meaningful and not just a set up to a reveal; this doesn’t feel like a screenwriting exercise (“make a movie with 10 characters in a house”), but rather an exploration into grief and what we do to try and cope with loss. My only gripe is with the film’s final shot; not that I didn’t think it worked, but it felt like it took the film deeper into a slightly different direction.