There is a beautiful simplicity to Karyn Kusama’s latest film that is lacking in most thrillers nowadays. Instead of relying on jump scares to build its unsettling atmosphere, the film allows it characters to do all the heavy lifting. Conversation and subtle visual flourishes are mainly the tools Kusama uses to construct her tension filled tale.
The Invitation may primarily take place in a mundane house in the Hollywood Hills, but it is just as deceptive as the party that its central characters have gathered for. Little is known at first as to why Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) have been invited to a dinner party hosted by Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard). After the collapse of their marriage, due in part to the tragic death of their son, Will and Eden have not been in contact at all. In fact, none of their close friends have even heard from Eden in over two years.
Now remarried to David (Michiel Huisman), a man who she met at a grief-support group, Eden has a New Age outlook on life that only Will seems to find peculiar. Adding to his suspicions is the unexpected presence of Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), a free spirit who Eden and David met in Mexico, and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), a man with a mysterious and volatile past, at the party. Unable to understand why no one else seems to find the whole notion of the gathering strange, including David’s insistence on locking the door to prevent theft, Will is forced to take a closer look at his own mental state.
Could his friends be right? Is the darkness he sees simply a manifestation of the painful memories that being in the house evokes? Or is there something more sinister at play?
The Invitation does not waste time in establishing its eerie tone. From the moment Will and Kira arrive at the home the audience knows something is not quite right. While other directors would quickly expunge the psychological horror aspects, in favor of playing up the blood and gore, Kusama skillfully draws out the tension. This allows her to establish a sense of doubt within Will and the viewer as well. Though the audience is aware there is more going on beneath the surface, they are never sure, in the first half at least, if it is the party itself or Will’s skewed version of the events.
Kusama’s wonderful use of sound further adds to the sense of paranoia drifting throughout the film. There is a great scene set at the dinner table where Will observes his friends as they eat their meals. Kusama’s emphasis on the noises that come with people feverishly tearing apart the food gives the sequence an almost cannibalistic feel. The puzzled and almost terrifying look on Will’s face only adds to the sense of dread slowly dripping from the film.
Although the tension Kusama establishes at the start begins to fall apart when The Invitation embraces conventional horror tropes in the last act, the film manages to remain intriguing thanks to the wonderful work by its cast. Logan Marshall-Green and Tammy Blanchard, who along with her work in Tallulah is having an outstanding year, are effective as damaged souls coping with grief in vastly different ways. Emayatzy Corinealdi is also quite good as Kira, the loving girlfriend who wants to be the compassionate ear for a partner who may be losing his mind, and the always delightful John Carroll Lynch delivers another solid performance in his brief turn as Pruitt.
Despite its straightforward approach, The Invitation establishes and sustains a chilling atmosphere throughout. The film may not break new ground from a plot standpoint, but Kusama skillfully steers her film down a road that is more engaging than some of the contemporary films to tackle the same subject matter.
The Invitation is currently streaming on Netflix worldwide