As Will (Logan Marshall-Greene) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) drive to a dinner party, a coyote jumps out in front of their car, and is maimed. Will puts the canine out of it’s misery with a tire iron. The action is obscured from the viewer by the hood of the car, but this pre-credit sequence to Karyn Kusama’s 2015 thriller The Invitation supplies a palpably fatalistic point of view, which permeates the rest of the proceedings, informing the viewer’s expectations even before things go predictably awry.
The dinner party to which Will and Kira are invited is at the house of Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her new husband David (Michael Huisman), who have spent the previous two years in Mexico. We learn that it was the accidental death of Will and Eden’s son (during a birthday party) that drove them to divorce and estrangement, and motivated Eden’s move to Mexico. The other five members of the party are all old friends who were present during the accident, making for a very morbid reunion. The friends are introduced to Sadie (Lindsey Burge), a friend of Eden and David’s whom they met in Mexico, and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), another mysterious friend of theirs, totally unknown by the group. Eden and David reveal that the four of them met in a cult called “The Invitation,” and show a video (presumably for recruitment) in which The Invitation’s leader presides over the euthanasia of a terminally ill woman.
This is only one of the many red flags (along with barred windows, a lack of cell phone reception, and a missing party member) that leads Will to believe that there is something sinister, not just odd, about the night’s proceedings, and he becomes increasingly confrontational. While all of the friends vocalize their discomfort with the video, they ultimately tolerate it, conflating Will’s suspicions with his extreme discomfort of being in the very house where he lived with his dead son, which may not be an inaccurate assessment.
From the moment he steps into the house, Will is haunted by memories of his son. While Eden has, through the Invitation, overcome her grief, we see that Will is in no way over his son’s death. The emotional toll this takes on Will is well conveyed, particularly with the use of flashback as an indicator of character memory, rather than a lazy shortcut to fill the viewer in on details that would be too awkward to summarize in dialogue. The house itself is framed imposingly, with even well-lit rooms casting an eerie shadow, furthering the oppressive weight Will feels from the grief. While the brand of psychological tension the film trafficks in is far from unique, it is certainly very well done. Though the film’s final act, which plays with an inverted home invasion dynamic, is somewhat run-of-the-mill, the emotional stakes established by Will and Eden’s parallel journeys with grief are clear enough to give the violent conclusion substantial impact. The mechanics of the violent finale also nicely parallel this theme of inescapable, all-consuming grief, which if left unexamined, can fester to genuinely harmful levels.
This intensely character-driven focus gives Logan Marshall-Green a lot of weight to carry. Much of Will’s dialogue is terse, and his attitude alternates between guarded and confrontational, which could easily result in a character coming off as cold or even unlikable. However, Marshall-Green is able to make sure that the emotional conflict in his character is present, while also illustrating that he realizes how much his grief is harming him.
The supporting cast also holds up well. None of the main group is given much backstory, but the writing and performances convey the peculiar combination of familiarity and awkwardness that would accompany a group of old friends reuniting after such a tragic event. John Carroll Lynch is in full Zodiac mode here, exuding creepiness from the get-go, and the character is indeed a long way from his turn as a harmless postage stamp artist in Fargo. Michael Huisman, of Game of Thrones fame, is effective, but plays his character of David as just a little too clearly disingenuous.
This sort of telegraphing of the suspense is maybe the film’s biggest flaw, though it might be an unavoidable pitfall of such a genre movie where, once the setting is established, only a very limited number of things can really happen. Thankfully, the bloody climax actually fits nicely with the themes established, and is further helped by strong characterizations and tense direction. Apologies for the poor pun, but for genre fans, The Invitation is very much worth accepting.
Image above: horrorpedia.com