Discussion of Karyn Kusama’s movie has been roundly prefaced by admonishments not to spoil its plot. But really, if you’re more than fractionally familiar with genre trappings and tropes, you’d be hard pressed not to figure how this is all going to turn out within about five minutes. Indeed, as seductive as Kusama’s direction is, aided by a fine ensemble cast led by Tom Hardy, the only way The Invitation could have marked itself out as something truly other would have been to subvert expectations.
Perhaps the point was not to do so, what with all the heavy pre-empting and foreboding, such that the tension derives from the how and when rather than the fact of it. In which case, I’m a little dubious the picture has sufficient thematic integrity to justify itself. The sceptic in me would also say that, if Kusama really is someone who “when I sit in these studio meetings – I’m not afraid to say this – I’m one of the smartest people they’ve ever met and I’m certain it’s terrifying (for them)”, then she would have realised there was something that needed fixing in (hubby) Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay.
Kusama evidently greatly admired it, but one comes away doubting how much of The Invitation’s quality comes from they wrote and how much was layered and textured in by her. Certainly, Hay and Manfredi’s track record is spotty at best (they’re credited on messes like Clash of the Titans, R.I.P.D. and Ride Along). They penned the much maligned Æon Flux, a movie I quite liked, which was, by all accounts, a nightmare for Kusama (her sophomore feature); she had it taken away from her and then capitulated into gutting it for the studio on the basis that the result wouldn’t be quite so divested of integrity as their first mutilation. If nothing else, it would be nice for to see her make a $100m grosser on a peanuts budget, so her stock rises sufficiently that she can exhume her original vision (provided it still exists in a vault somewhere).
The Invitation is one of those dinner parties from hell movies, which can run the gamut from social dramas and marital breakdowns (Guess Who’ Coming to Dinner, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) to psychological thrillers (The Last Supper). The horror genre tends to feature dinner parties as an entrée only (or, in Hannibal, a dessert), an aspect of the proceedings, since things usually devolve pretty quickly. Although, like the recent Green Room, defining whether The Invitation is a thriller or a horror is surely a matter of personal taste.
What is notable about it, and most impressive, is the length of time it sustains its tension before the dinner party actually goes to tits up. That’s because we’re expertly placed in the paranoid mind of Will (Logan Marshall-Green), invited with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to the aforementioned affair hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and new beau David (Michiel Huisman, well cast as creepy, much less so as a romantic lead in The Age of Adaline); Will’s withdrawn and cautious, and at every turn the house haunts him with memories of the death of the son that drove him and Eden apart.
We know something’s off even before they reach the house, though. There’s an ill omen as soon as Will hits a coyote en route and then puts it out of its misery with a tyre iron. The party seems fine if forced on the surface, with a spread of old friends and a couple of unfamiliar faces, but there’s something too effusive about Eden (Kusama relishes the small details, like the over-forward manner in which she dabs Will’s face when they first greet) and David, and their loony friend Sadie (Lindsay Burge), and that’s before overbearing and not-remotely-convincingly-benign Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) arrives. And just where is Choi (Karl Yune), who should have arrived before them?
The weirdness of the hosts, immediately announcing themselves with a born-again, culty vibe, informs us that paranoid Will is not off his rocker, particularly since his fellow guests also recognise things are a bit odd; they’re just less inclined to conclude that it’s down to the most extreme possibility. Less a Scientology-type sect than a determined intervention on behalf of the misguidedly ignorant (“I was just telling Will that pain is optional”), Eden and David introduce a video of the titular The Invitation, in which a group member is shown dying (4real), instigate party games that initially seem like a variant on spin the bottle but lead to Pruitt announcing that he killed his wife, and generally provoke extreme dis-ease in Will, unnerved by the cache of phenobarbital in the bedroom, the cult leader’s video on a handily prominent laptop and David’s penchant for locking the front door.
We’re expecting some sort of Manson-style incident long before it happens, so the only potential twist in store is that this isn’t that at all. And Kusama and the writers engineer a couple of false reliefs; Choi does show up, just after Will has enacted a massive meltdown, and for the briefest spell it seems like it might be in his own head (earlier, there’s a superbly staged sequence in which guest Claire – Marieh Deflino – decides to leave, either being far more sensible than everyone else or simply unfamiliar with standard-issue, crazy LA dinner parties; Will makes a scene, instructing the protesting David to allow her to go, and then, just as her car pulls out of sight, Pruitt goes to speak to her…)
The violence, when it escalates, is suitably impactful, but to her credit, Kusama doesn’t allow the picture to become a prolonged stalk-and-slash number. Will and Kira are trapped in a house of darkened rooms and corridors, helplessly witnessing the grisly demise of Ben just as he makes it outside, but quickly decide “We’re going to do whatever it takes”. Which entails Kira, who has barely uttered a peep in the whole proceedings (this really is top heavy in characterisation for the brooding Will), beating Pruitt to death in fairly decisive fashion.
The problems thus arise in retrospect, that one realises the picture has been almost entirely built on tone and atmosphere, that the cult itself is rudimentary in designation (murder-suiciding and off to paradise we go; thus, Marshall-Green’s portrait of grief is rather undermined by the blunderbuss of the final act). It may even have been built backwards from the twist of the apocalyptic final shot (which itself has that kind of WTF moment we’ve seen in as diverse affairs as Deep Rising, the cliffhanger ending of Angel Season Five, or In the Mouth of Madness) and that, rather than anything truly surprising, we’ve been delivered exactly what Will was anticipating from the first fifteen minutes of his arrival.
There’s also the genre-typical failing of there being little sense that these people knew each other prior to this fateful get-together. The Invitation thus doesn’t really dig into the nature of the changes within a group of friends that is inevitable with the passage of time, such that any sense of a Big Chill style reunion is entirely absent. Kusama’s palate is much too icy and moody for that, and the characterisation too spartan, and for all the quality of the performances, this makes The Invitation essentially an exercise in genre atmospherics, a superior piece of exploitation fare, rather than a piece with serious emotional substance. The stylisation, and vaguely ’70s vibe – a Manson-esque cult, Logan with his Manson-esque hair (poor guy probably looked at stills from Tom Hardy in Mad Max and decided to go in the opposite direction, and then cursed his rotten luck when The Revenant came out), opportunities for narcotic or sexual abandon – add to the sense that the picture lives in a bubble, removed from any real connection to the contemporary world.
But with this level of assuredness, anything Kusama lays claim to from now on has to be a must-see. I’ll have to dig up Jennifer’s Body, to give it a fair chance. As a female director working in genre cinema, she has relatively few notable peers (Kathryn Bigelow has long-since sacrificed herself to sloppy, faux-literate “reality-based” political thrillers, which is all our losses); it seems the response to The Invitation has rightly led to a slew of TV work. It will hopefully, from thence, lead to a slew of movies. She may even get that “man turns into a woman” screenplay made one day.