Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is a variation on the “dinner party from hell” film: is our protagonist paranoid, or are they really out to get him?
Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is a variation on the “dinner party from hell” film, with the age-old question: is our protagonist paranoid, or are they really out to get him? Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), are invited to a dinner party held by Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), at her mansion — where Will’s son died. The smooth surface of the event is marred by odd occurrences that may or may not add up to something sinister. Eden and her new partner, Dave (Michiel Huisman), soon start rhapsodizing about a spiritual group called The Invitation. Will begins to suspect that Eden and Dave are up to something, even as his own behaviour becomes increasingly erratic with grief.
Under Kusama’s direction, Will’s former home feels more claustrophobic than luxurious. The vastness of the pool, the modern open-concept layout, and the grassy yard only heighten Will’s experience of the place as ominous and confining. This is the house where his child died. While other guests laugh in two- and three-shots under bright lights, Kusama follows the back of Will’s head as he moves through darkened corridors or hunches outside as the party goes on through a window behind him. Bobby Shore’s meticulous cinematography distorts this mansion into a labyrinth, as the house forces Will to confront his grief.
The first two-thirds of The Invitation are a disquieting slow-burn where we, with the dinner guests, must decide how to interpret relatively small social transgressions. Early on, Dave insists on playing a game called I Want, where participants express their “honest desires” — no matter how invasive or outré. When one guest calls Dave’s bluff by voicing her honest desire to leave, Dave pressures her to stay. The Invitationers don’t respect honest wishes or personal boundaries, and seem puzzled when guests won’t join them in abandoning social conventions. We must decide whether this signals something unsettling about their worldview or if they’re just obnoxiously new-agey.
The Invitation should be subtitled “It’s time to go”, because it’s immediately clear that this party won’t end well. Your ex-wife slaps a friend for questioning her newfound “enlightenment”? It’s time to go. A stranger wanders the house half-naked and announces that she loves everyone? It’s time to go. You think your hosts have joined a cult — and they’re recruiting? IT IS TIME TO GO. Of course, if Will and Kira did the sensible thing and bowed out, The Invitation would be a much shorter film. But I never got a sense of what compelled them to stay at this uncomfortable gathering. Without that insight, the film’s very setup feels contrived.
Kusama slowly winds up the tension by following Will’s perspective, yet keeps us at enough of a distance to question his judgment. Every shot in the film centres around Will: Kusama is either shooting what Will sees, or shooting Will himself. Will is often shown in uncomfortably tight close-ups, the camera pushing in just a little too tightly on his near-affectless face. What should be intimate is actually alienating — we’re intruding on his personal space. This estrangement ensures that we never actually sympathize with Will; though we see his pain, we never soften to him, and become inclined to cut him a break. We’re genuinely unsure if he has become unhinged. When he starts shouting, we don’t wish the other guests would listen; we wonder if they should call the cops.
Kusama is so good at keeping us guessing that I wondered for a moment if this would be the one thriller where the protagonist apologises for acting crazy and then everyone goes home. But this is a suspense film, and we know there will be tears before bedtime. Unfortunately, when chaos finally ensues, the film sags. Because Kusama keeps us almost clinically detached as we scrutinize Will and Eden, we’re indifferent to the characters’ fates. We’ve spent an hour and a half trying to figure out their secrets. Once all is revealed, they’re no longer very interesting.