As a more reserved and introverted person, parties and get-togethers are naturally unsettling for me; so Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, a tense, smart film about a man who attends a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new lover, only to find out that they may be harboring sinister motives, is downright horrifying in its basic premise. Still, this is one of the best thrillers of the year thus far (my favorite since last year’s surprise treat, The Gift)—a film that fans of the genre will do well not to miss.
The Invitation is a multi-layered film with a lot going on under the surface. Will (played by Logan Marshall-Green, who looks so much like Tom Hardy that I half expected his true identity to be a major plot twist) knows that there is something strange going on from the party’s outset: Eden (Tammy Blanchard), his Ex, and David (Michiel Huisman) are too warm, too friendly given their past. However, Will is struggling to accept and cope with the reasons (shown via intermittent flashbacks) for his divorce, and his increasing suspicion toward his hosts makes us question the motives of the entire group. Everyone is a suspect, including Will.
In an intentionally noticeable sense, The Invitation flirts with other genres. It feels like a horror film in many situations, as if the preternatural could appear at any moment. But it also nods to the paranoia films of the 1970s by grounding so much of the narrative in Will’s perspective, which may or may not be entirely reliable. At its heart, though, the film has both feet firmly planted in
thriller territory. It’s a slow-burner; Kusama’s lingering shots down the house’s seemingly endless hallways instantiate a sense of claustrophobia; and Theodore Shapiro’s brilliant, nerve-wracking score, with its combination of synthesizer-driven motifs (which are reminiscent of The Shining) and physical instruments ( the plucking and tittering of strings), highlights one of the film’s primary conceits: the inability to distinguish the artificial, the imagined, from the real.
The film is also rife with biblical imagery. The names of the party hosts, David and Eden, evoke themes of innocence, guilt, and the acquittal thereof. In fact, Eden and Will are opposites in may ways; the former has ostensibly found healing from her tumultuous past, while the latter is still plagued the grief and loss of his previous relationship. A climactic dinner scene subtly invokes the last supper, with communion wine freely abounding, but turns this intimate scene into a truly horrifying feast.
Still, even in its more visceral moments, it is what’s under the surface that makes The Invitation so thoroughly unnerving. Almost every aspect of this film taps into Freud’s notion of the uncanny. Ordinary events are rendered strange and unfamiliar; a glance held a moment too long hides ulterior motives; a memory-laden walk through a familiar home leads to exotic encounters; and an offer of hospitality hints at hostility.
A safe and formulaic thriller it is not; but if you’re tired of the same old, same old, consider this your invitation.
[The Invitation is now playing in select theaters and is also available on VOD.]