The Invitation. 2015. Directed by Karyn Kusama. Screenplay by Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi.
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Aiden Lovekamp, Michelle Krusiec, Mike Doyle, Jordi Vilasuso, Jay Larson, Marieh Delfino, Tammy Blanchard, Michael Huisman, Lindsay Burdge, John Carroll Lynch, Toby Huss, Danielle Camastra, Trish Gates, & Karl Yune. Gamechanger Films/Lege Artis/XYZ Films.
Unrated. 100 minutes.
I’ve long said a film can survive on atmosphere alone sometimes. Not that a movie can be perfect without story or plot, but I can love a piece of cinema for its mood and its tone above other elements. But what happens when you’ve got a strong, palpable atmosphere that deals in the strongest sort of psychological horror combined with a mysterious and thrilling drama? The Invitation from director Karyn Kusama is what happens.
Using some character actors who are off the beaten path, such as the fabulous John Carroll Lynch and Logan Marshall-Green, as well as a very interesting perspective in a screenplay from Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the quiet, at times frightening thrills of this film are well-honed. This film has the right looks, the right feel, and the performances pull its effectiveness wire-tight across the throat, never letting go until the last frame. In a new Golden Age of horror that’s seeing indie film lead the charge towards better stories, better production, more focus on smart writing and practical effects rather than CGI and half-assed screenplays, The Invitation is another welcome addition to my favourite films since 2000.
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is heading to a dinner party with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi). They’ve been invited by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). Many tensions surround Will; not only is it the first time in a couple years he’s seen Eden, the party is in the former home which they shared.
Once there, Will starts to question exactly what is is that brought them there for the party. As the night wears on he begins wondering if Eden and David have some other intentions for gathering their former group of friends together. Some leftover trauma lingers over Will from the life he had with his ex-wife. At the same time, Eden seems to have moved on. She and David belong to some type of cult, a supposed self-help-styled community. And a little way in the evening descends into something much more wild than any of the guests ever expected.
But is it real? Or is Will just losing his mind?
The mystery of the screenplay works wonders. Slight bits and pieces of the backstory to these characters trickles out. As the scenes move forward, the characters develop through a solid pace. Some of the best parts of The Invitation have to do with the thin line it treads, tightrope walking between excitement and subtle creepiness. I dig slow burn stories, as long as they’re done properly. At the same time, when a plot moves from steady to thrilling this makes things all the much better. Kusama weaves the story from start to finish with an underlying tension, a pulse-thumping dread that nearly rattles the bones, so that once the plot breaks out full force you want to grind your teeth down to the jaw.
Part of the wonderfully effective atmosphere comes from the haunting, rhythmic, ghostly score that adorns the movie. Surprisingly, Theodore Shapiro has mostly done a lot of comedies, from Old School to more recent stuff with Paul Feig. Yet here he perfectly adds such a paranoid edge to many of the scenes with his score. It oozes out from the edges and scoops you up, pulling you in, getting under your skin. This works well in addition with cinematographer Bobby Shore’s shadowy work. Much of the film is cast in a great deal of dark, naturally lit spaces, from the living room to hallways to the candle-lit table at dinner. Shore hasn’t done a ton of notable work, but the camera here captures everything so flawlessly it is hard to believe he isn’t doing more films of this caliber. Between Shore and Shapiro’s score, these elements make The Invitation suspicious, filled with paranoid moments, it never lets you move back from the edge of your seat. And above all, these aspects together with the screenplay make for a story that will keep you guessing, one moment to the next.
There are a handful of good performances here. Everyone in the core group of friends does a nice job. Further than that, the central role of Will is perfect in the hands of Logan Marshall-Green. He’s played some great characters, from his turn in Prometheus to his portrayal of Jewel Bundren in James Franco’s film adaptation of As I Lay Dying. This role requires him, along with the screenplay, to keep us guessing. The paranoia of his character is almost evident from the very beginning. His emotion, his range and subtle acting all make Will a raw, honest, even sometimes uncomfortable character.
Added to Marshall-Green, the casting of John Carroll Lynch was a solid choice. He is a character actor that can bring to life many different types, from gentle sort of people like his character from Fargo to the disturbed maniac like his Twisty the Clown from American Horror Story: Freak Show. His character in this film, a man named Pruitt also involved in the cult of which David and Eden are a part, adds an extra layer of mystery and paranoia. He is an outside force, independent of the original group of friends, and that very fact puts him on the periphery of the group. So with his unnervingly calm performance, particularly in the first half of the film, Lynch adds more tension and suspense to chew on. He keeps things off-balance much like the screenplay as a whole.
The film’s finale still has me reeling. Even if the lead-up were mediocre, which it was not – it was almost pitch perect – the last twenty minutes of The Invitation make this into a horrifying, reality-driven thriller. And it just may take your breath away. Part of the impact comes from the inability to completely guess what will happen next. However, a large portion, again, is the atmosphere. Karyn Kusama can now be considered a master o suspense, as the story sucked me into its black hole then completely chewed me up in the final act. This is another movie that, as of late, has been subject of huge hype. For good reason, too. Go into this knowing as little as you can about the actual plot. This will make for an even more deafening blow to your psyche once the movie takes hold.