Film Review: The Invitation (2016)

Director: Karyn Kusama
Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Tammy Blanchard, Michael Huisman, John Caroll Lynch, Michelle Krusiec, Jordi Vilasuso, Lindsay Burdge, Mike Doyle, Marieh Delfino, Jay Larsen,Karl Yune

The Invitation
begins with a gloomy Gus named Will (Logan Marshall-Green) driving to a dinner party with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) that’s hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michael Huisman). It seems that it was a familial tragedy that separated Will and Eden, and afterwards, she disappeared for two years without a trace until she sent out the invitations to Will and their old friends. It seems she took part of some kind of retreat in Mexico to help her cope with her loss (that was where she met David), and now she acts like she doesn’t feel any pain at all.

Will has a huge problem with this. What happened wasn’t something that could be gotten over so quickly. Will is still in torment over what happened (“I’ve been wanting to die since it happened,” he tells Kira at one point), and it just doesn’t sit well with him to see Eden as happy as she is. Granted, he has no idea what she went through to get to that point, or what she’s still going through now. She may be all smiles for much of the evening, but there are moments where we can still see the pain in her eyes.

Will seems to be the only person who’s bothered by this. His friends – Gina (Michelle Krusiec), Ben (Jay Larsen), Claire (Marieh Delfino), and gay couple Tommy (Mike Doyle) and Miguel (Jordi Vilasuso) – believe that Eden has simply found a way to cope with what happened. Yet there are other things troubling Will as well. Apart from their old friends, there are two other guests whom Eden and David met while out in Mexico: There’s Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), a free-spirited nut job, and Pruitt (John Caroll Lynch), a seemingly laid back giant of a man who has a sinister presence about him (this is especially true when he talks about his late wife, in what has got to be one of the most unsettling monologues I can ever remember hearing).

There’s something that doesn’t seem to be right about those two, or the retreat Eden spent the better part of two years in (which turns out to be more of a cult, and a very disturbed one at that, given what’s revealed about it in a video that David and Eden make the mistake of showing to their guests). And what about Gina’s boyfriend Choi (Karl Yune)? He was supposed to be at the party early, yet no one has seen or heard from him. Will suspects something sinister is happening, but there’s really nothing concrete to suggest that there’s any danger in the house.

There are ingredients here for an emotionally lacerating study about people dealing with grief in their own way. Will, for one, believes it is better to embrace the pain that resulted from the tragedy, while Eden takes what she’s learned to heart to help her relieve it. Logan Marshall-Green is riveting as a man who’s trying to repress his true feelings for the sake of his ex-wife and the other guests, but occasionally lets his anger take over, while Tammy Blanchard is haunting as a woman whose smile hides much more than she’s willing to admit. There is one shot of her face in particular, after Will demands that she acknowledges what happened, that is quite heartbreaking.

Is something wrong here? You just have to see it and find out for yourself!
Is something wrong here? You just have to see it and find out for yourself!

As a drama, The Invitation is aces, but director Karyn Kusama injects an unshakable feeling of dread in every moment of the film. Will believes that everyone at the party is in danger, and for all we know, he could be right. The movie is told strictly through his point of view, so when Pruitt moves his car from behind Claire’s so she can leave, or when Choi still doesn’t show up at the party, or when David goes outside to light an eerie red lantern, we can understand his suspicions.

Because the trailers have advertised this movie as a thriller, you can be sure that something happens at the end of the movie, and that something isn’t a pretty picture. What it is will be left unsaid here, but the final shot that the movie ends with is one of the creepiest and most unsettling final shots of recent memory. It’s the sort of final shot that gets under your skin and haunts you for days after, and what’s more is that the movie doesn’t cheat. When you look back on everything that came before it, you can see that the movie was building to it all along. It is a magnificent final shot.

One of the reasons The Invitation is such a treat because it’s able to creep you out and terrify you with what it hints at rather than what it shows. Like the 1968 Roman Polanski thriller Rosemary’s Baby, it’s an exquisite and scary exercise in paranoia, but the way Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi are able to balance the thriller elements with the film’s themes of pain and loss is nothing if not extraordinary. It’s rare to see a movie like this that’s able to move you yet get under your skin at the same time, yet Kusama and her team have pulled off the task flawlessly.

Kusama has made the ultimate comeback with this movie. While she made a stellar debut with 2000’s Girlfight, she went on to make the 2005 bomb Aeon Flux (Which was also written by Hay, her husband, who also wrote 2010’s Clash of the Titans. This is a career high point for him.) as well as the 2009 Diablo Cody scripted Jennifer’s Body. The Invitation is not only good enough to make you forgive her previous failures, but also to get you excited to see what she’ll do next. There's not much more I can say about the movie, except that it is truly one of the very best films of 2016. Do not waste any chance you might have to see it.

Rated R for some very strong violence, sexual content, brief nudity, and lots of profanity

Final Grade: **** (out of ****)

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