Misdirection can pay huge dividends in the right hands. Audiences begin with certain expectations and don’t feel as tense because we understand the framework. A perfect example is this week’s premiere of The Walking Dead. After waiting for months to learn the identity of Negan’s victim, the show pulled out the rug and killed a second (and more significant) character. It’s dangerous to play around with our expectations, however. Another example is the excellent thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, which spends most of its time convincing us a character is delusional. When the final revelation arrives, it both proves that theory and debunks it.
The Sadness and Ominous Dread of The Invitation
A similar feeling pervades Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, an independent production released earlier this year. A strange dinner party is obviously hiding something sinister, but it’s possible the main character is reading the signs incorrectly. His friends may have just grown weirder and aren’t preparing to enlist him in a mind-warping cult (or worse). Kusama holds back the reveal for so long that we begin to wonder if it’s all been a sham. Are we just witnessing eccentric adults talking about how they cope with a past tragedy? It’s still doubtful given the ominous directing style, but Kusama introduces doubts by holding back for so long.
The party takes place in one of those fancy Hollywood homes that I’ve only seen in movies. The former friends (and a few random arrivals) come together to drink gallons of fine wine and catch up about life. Scenes like this happen every night across the world. Of course, most don’t include videos showing the wonders of dying. That is just one of many odd choices by the party hosts. There are also traumatic memories in this house for Will (Logan Marshall-Green), whose son died there. Visions of the past haunt him, while his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) acts like all is well. There’s too much inner turmoil for Will to enjoy a dinner party.
The Invitation is directed by Karyn Kusama, who burst onto the scene with Girlfight in 2000. AEon Flux and Jennifer’s Body were less successful, so it’s refreshing to see her behind the camera again for her fourth feature. From the very first shots, Kusama builds a sense of dread. Will and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) strike a coyote with their car, and he’s forced to kill it with a tire iron. This moment builds the ominous atmosphere and shows that Will is no patsy. He barely hesitates before the committing the violent act of mercy. The credits play with disorienting shots of the sky as the couple nears the party. This unsettling feeling matches Will’s struggles with re-visiting such a tragic chapter of his past life.
The dinner party mostly hits familiar beats and shows friends re-connecting after two years. There are the typical awkward conversations and frisky moves that come with wine. These scenes don’t really connect because it’s such a slow burn, and we keep waiting for something to happen. The script by Phil Hay (Kusama’s husband) and Matt Manfredi keeps the action mundane. The main reason the tensions remains are the slimy performance from Michael Huisman (Game of Thrones’ Daario) and odd work by Tammy Blanchard as the host couple. Both look like characters that plan to murder everyone. When add in the wild-eyed Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and ultra-calm Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), there’s definitely something amiss.
The standout scene is a monologue from Pruitt that takes a dramatic left turn. Initially a speech about love for Pruitt’s wife, it turns into something much darker. What makes it click is the serene look on the face of John Carroll Lynch. It’s similar to the way he approached playing the likely killer in Zodiac. Lynch looks like your typical suburban dad, but his eyes say something different. We spend the movie waiting for him to enact a sinister plan and take over the party.
Kusama is a native of St. Louis (my hometown), so I’ve always rooted for her success. She also got her start with John Sayles, who’s one of my favorite directors. Kusama shot The Invitation for $1 million and has earned solid reviews. I’m hopeful this is just the start of her resurgence. She mines a lot of suspense from a story where little happens for a while. It moves a bit too slowly and holds back the revelations for more than an hour. Still, there are few scenes that don’t induce dread. An exception is a gorgeous exterior shot of the lit Hollywood sky, but even that moment includes a possibly dangerous reveal. There’s no rest for Will or the audience.
Once the twist arrives, the results are surprisingly mundane. That doesn’t mean they aren’t effective, however. The suspense reaches such feverish heights that the mayhem is a relief. An earlier moment where Will sees Sadie practicing horrified faces in the mirror is more frightening than anything that happens later. Lindsay Burdge is the opposite of Lynch; she’s obviously nuts from the start. The mystery is how far her mania runs — typical Hollywood quirkiness or a true menace? Most of us can guess the answer to that question.
The Invitation’s prevailing theme is how we deal with loss. Will pulls inward (and grows the predictable beard), while Eden joins a fringe group. Kusama has talked openly about inspiration from her own tragedies. The interesting part is how she pulls that experience into a fairly standard thriller. We can read that sadness as a partial motivator or the film’s point. It’s a bit of both, and a clever final twist expands the story to more than the house. The severe approach to loss is widespread and reflects a broken society. Hope remains, but there are more battles on the horizon.