A distressing knockout of pin-prick precision and harrowing consequence, "The Invitation" is a film that will notand cannotbe forgotten. Karyn Kusama is a director who has previously dabbled in studio fare, from 2005's troubled "Aeon Flux
" to 2009's quirky, Diablo Cody-scripted "Jennifer's Body
," but her work has been, to one degree or another, at the mercy of other cooks in the kitchen whose concern has strictly been the bottom line. For the first time since her 2000 debut feature, the Sundance hit "Girlfight," she has taken the steps to make a movie for herself, using her own sensibilities, with the hope other viewers will share in her tastes. Not only has this leap toward creative freedom paid off, but it should hopefully signal another major turning point in the evolution of her career. Masterfully actualizing a stunner of a script written by Phil Hay (Kusama's husband) and Matt Manfredi (2001's "crazy/beautiful
"), Kusama establishes herself as a legitimate filmmaking force, someone who can take a single location and create from this a tour de force of emotionally aching transcendence and nearly unbearable slow-boiling dread and tension.
The less one knows going into "The Invitation," the better. If you'd like to step away and return only after having seen it, that is probably a wise decision. Logan Marshall-Green (2012's "Prometheus
") stars as Will, a man in his thirties still carrying with him the weight of a tragedy from his past. When he receives an invitation for a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her current beau David (Michiel Huisman), he accepts with the hope of reconnecting to old friends. With girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) by his side, Will journeys into the Hollywood Hills, to the very home he once shared with Eden. She and David have only recently returned from a 2-year sojourn to Mexico, and Will can sense almost immediately a change in her demeanor and personality. When she speaks of discovering a new way of life free of pain and sadness, Will is quietly crushed that she could suddenly be so flippant over a shared loss he is still struggling to come to terms. As the night wears on and the soiree takes a number of uncomfortable turns, the appearance of Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch)strangers tightly ensconced in Eden and David's livesleaves Will progressively suspicious of their motives. Has Eden simply found herself a hippy-dippy spiritual outlet for overcoming her grief, or is there a far more sinister plot already in play?
"The Invitation" takes its time yet wastes nary a frame, each moment methodically, sublimely building as a get-together with friends and loved ones treks toward a creeping pall of peril. The narrative, told from Will's perspective, provocatively evolves based on the baggage, hang-ups and fears he brings with him to the idyllic Los Angeles home where he no longer resides but memories both irreplaceable and unthinkable still exist. Is he being paranoid of his hosts' intentions, or does he have a right to be worried? Is Gina's (Michelle Krusiec) boyfriend Choi (Karl Yune) really just late, or has something happened to him? And is David insistent on locking all the doors based on a safety concern, or to trap everyone inside? As this ominous conundrum threatens to bubble over while wine-drinking guests continue to keep up appearances, weightier human themes begin to take shape. Will is guilt-stricken and suffering over a devastating loss he has gone through, but he rightly views this as a natural part of the grieving process. In the interim since he last saw Eden, she has seemingly wiped all of this awayor so she says. Behind her artificial smile and halcyon serenity, Will sees the hurt in her eyes and feels betrayed that she is outwardly denying these difficult but necessary emotions. A human being cannot simply turn off certain feelings like a light switch, and Eden's claims that she can are the result, he believes, of someone who is lying to herself or potentially brainwashed.
The ensemble cast is superlative, filled with character actors who infrequently receive big-screen roles this significant and juicy. Logan Marshall-Green is an affecting center as Will, a man taking steps to pull himself out of the darkness but not quite equipped to do so. When Kira tries to let him know she is there for him and he expresses in all honesty that he is unsure if she can help him, the words sting them both for different reasons. He doesn't realize they may be on the precipice of having to save each other, and in a whole different manner. Marshall-Green's role is one demanding he play introspective, quietly mournful spectator, then someone who gradually finds the fire in himself he no longer thought he had, and he sells every moment. Emayatzy Corinealdi (2012's "Middle of Nowhere") gives Kira an empathetic soul, one that benefits her all the more when she chooses to stand by Will following a heated confrontation he has around the dinner table. Tammy Blanchard (2014's "Into the Woods
") gives a full three dimensions to Eden, her all-is-well charade made all the more unsettling by her silent, not-entirely-concealed anguish. Michelle Krusiec (2005 "Cursed
"), as the fun-loving Gina, and Marieh Delfino (2003's "Jeepers Creepers 2
"), as the sensible Claire, get a number of terrific moments as two of Will's friends looking to mend their broken bonds with him, while the oft-brilliant John Carroll Lynch (2015's "Hot Pursuit
") cuts a foreboding figure as the enigmatic Pruitt, speaking volumes and providing an "is-he-or-isn't-he?" threat with no more than a look.
"The Invitation" is a film of understanding and compassion, but also one which takes an unsparing gaze at the lengths desperate people will go to find comfort through faith, no matter the cost or sacrifice. It is also, for what it's worth, immensely frightening. The layers director Karyn Kusama builds within her slickly modernized house of cards enticingly grow in emotional complexity and chilling suggestion. Every corner forces the viewer to reassess what he or she has just seen, and what is about to follow. Cinematographer Bobby Shore stages the action with a keenly enthralling understanding of space, lighting and mood, while he, Kusama and production designer Almitra Corey take expert advantage of their setting, ensuring the property's architecture, landscaping and cliffside vistas provide a place both grandly enticing and eerily isolated. A nerve-shredding climax, capped by a final shot as brilliantly alarming as it is hair-raisingly evocative, seals the deal on a picture dripping in dark, rapturous portent. Part of the stressful pleasure of watching "The Invitation" is in guessing where the story is headed and, once discovered, recollecting on where it has been. This isn't a horror-thriller-as-magic-trick, though. Quite the contrary, it is a splendidly ominous, beautifully constructed exploration into damaged peoples' lives and the awful, fallible turns they can take.