‘The Invitation’ Review: Karyn Kusama’s Fierce Drama Pulls No Punches
After being dealt some bad luck in the studio system with the underwhelming action flick Aeon Flux and the undervalued horror comedy Jennifer’s Body, director Karyn Kusama emerges with her best film since she made her feature debut with 2000's Girlfight. The Invitation is an exceptionally unnerving thriller, a sharp study in the horrors of platonic indulgence and the over-extension of courtesy.
Invited to a dinner party by his ex-wife at the house he once called home in the California hills, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) join their friends for what they assume will be a pleasant — if awkward — evening together. Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) presents her new beau David, portrayed by former Game of Thrones star Michiel Huisman. In what may be the most brilliant casting move of the year, Marshall-Green and Huisman’s readily apparent physical similarities immediately pit them against one another, adding further tension to an already uncomfortable atmosphere.
The reason for Eden and David’s dinner party is not immediately clear, though the tone of the evening is foreshadowed by Will and Kira’s unfortunate encounter on the drive over to the house. Joined by a group of similarly baffled friends, along with kooky newcomers Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Caroll Lynch), the gathering becomes progressively unsettling and strange as Eden and David inch closer toward revealing their true intentions.
Most of the tension in The Invitation comes from watching Eden and David’s friends tolerate the increasingly bizarre and uncomfortable evening — played just a hair differently, and The Invitation might be a comedy, and like those particularly painful, cringe-worthy social comedies, Kusama’s film plays on our empathy. But The Invitation elicits — and invites — cringes of dread, not empathetic humor, as we anticipate what horrors friendly patience and good humor hath wrought. In contrast to a typical comedy of errors, The Invitation may very well be the first horror of manners.
Kusama’s film explores the ways in which our desire to be polite, good sports to our friends and humor them with our kindness can extend perhaps a little too far. She mines the discomfort of an awkward social situation already heightened by the mixing of ex-partners and pushes that familiarity into outright chilling territory — what if Will’s paranoia over Eden’s new boyfriend is not irrational jealousy, but wholly deserved distrust?
Pairing Marshall-Green with Huisman is one of the smartest moves Kusama makes, not only because of their physical similarities, but their apparent contrast in attitudes. Will is understandably on edge given the heartbreaking history he’s shared with Eden, and the tragedy that drove them apart. The Invitation isn’t merely concerned with confronting us with the strangeness of our commitment to social etiquette, but with the overwhelming differences in our basic emotional existence. We all grieve differently — sometimes we refuse to let it go for fear of betraying the subject of that grief, and sometimes we move on easier than expected, drawing unfair judgment from those around us who believe we haven’t suffered to an appropriate extent.
This idea plays with the topic of social propriety to harmonious and unnerving effect, as The Invitation appraises the value of these collectively unspoken and nebulous ideas of what is appropriate and how we should behave and react. That “collective” idea is echoed when David and Eden’s true aims are revealed, leading to a climax that escalates from gut-punches to sharp, precise stabs, culminating in an ending that is incredibly visceral and surprisingly restrained for the genre.
Another swift surprise comes from screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, a duo best known for writing screenplays for the Ride Along films and the horribly forgettable R.I.P.D. Just as Kusama has found a creative release in The Invitation and delivered her fiercest work in years, so too have Hay and Manfredi, apparently — and thus The Invitation not only makes a case for the perils of being too polite, but for the perils of working in the confines of a studio system.