There’s something about tense dinner scenes in movies that just get to me.
The Invitation is a psychological thriller film directed by Karyn Kusama’s feature length follow-up to her incredibly divisive horror flick, Jennifer’s Body. The Invitation follows Will (Logan Marshall-Green), a man invited to the house he and his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) used to share for a dinner party with their old circle of friends whom they haven’t seen in years. Will is obviously very uncomfortable with being at a party held by his ex-wife, but things get a little stranger when the party guests begin noticing something is off with Eden and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). The night slowly and slowly gets stranger and stranger as Eden and David behave more and more oddly, all while Will wrestles with the painful memories of his past that have begun resurfacing.
There’s a bit of a blurred line between a thriller and a horror film. While both deal in tension and suspense, it feels like for the mainstream audience, horror is a label given to a movie considered of lower quality. When a horror movie with a smart script or great direction makes it big with the mainstream audience, it suddenly becomes a “smart and cerebral thriller” rather than just a dumb horror flick. As such, sometimes it’s tough to get a reading on a movie that seems like it sits in between those two genres, and sometimes, they get mixed up in the opposite fashion. If a thriller has some particularly graphic violence in it and/or gets mixed reviews, critics can slap the horror label on it to let the public know it’s subpar. The Invitation is one of these films, not because it’s of poor quality, but because it does have a fair bit of violence in it that shifts it into horror territory for some viewers. I firmly believe this film is a thriller through and through, and while any violence can be horrific, The Invitation does not revel in violence or physical suffering like a bog standard slasher or home invasion movie would. It has both of its feet firmly planted in the psychological unraveling of the protagonist, and the mental jousting between him, his friends, and his potential enemies.
That to me is The Invitation’s greatest strength. Throughout the film, Kusama has you guessing what is really happening, and not in a pretentious, convoluted, Only God Forgives arthouse sort of way. The shift in perspective between the increasingly uncomfortable house party to Will’s repressed feelings slowly pouring out is handled so well that you are fully invested in both situations and can see how Eden and David are acting kind of suspicious, but can also see how their actions are taken out of context and scrutinized by Will whenever he’s in an emotionally compromised state. You’re constantly guessing what different characters’ true intentions are, and you yourself begin reading too much into the actors’ body language and how they glance and glare at each other over a glass of wine. Pair that with some excellent misdirection and subversion as well as some clever writing that can be interpreted in many different ways until the absolute information comes to light, and you have a movie that truly benefits from going in to watch it as blind as possible. This movie deals in tension, and right from the get go, you begin leaning forward and hunching over in your seat. By the end of it, shit is all over your floor because you’ve been throttling your bag of popcorn for an hour straight and you’ve developed a twitch in one eye. The Invitation is an uncomfortable experience in the best way possible.
That being said, The Invitation does suffer from some predictability, but that honestly, that comment comes with being a cynical movie goer who looks for things like that. A couple plot points can be called from a mile away, but most of the twists and turns catch you off guard, and whether or not you called them fifteen minutes into the movie, they’re no less a direct punch to the gut. Besides, any lackluster moments in writing are easily out-shined by the superb acting in The Invitation. Logan Marshall-Green is absolutely killer with his really detailed and subtle portrayal of a man slowly breaking down while he tries to stay calm and collected in front of his friends, and even the secondary characters are well acted. They all feel like real, believable people that have known each other for years. They rib each other, and play off of each other, and they’re all comfortable around each other. You can read it in their body language. A lot of mediocre actors playing friends might have the dialogue down pat, but their physical acting will make them seem cold or awkward around their friends. Not this bunch. I was convinced from the moment I met them all that these characters have all been a major part of each others’ lives for years before this dinner party.
Kusama’s direction and visual style adds a ton to the film as well, from it’s relatively muted but not boring colour pallet to her use of geography in a scene. Usually geography is a thing that needs to be established in scenes that have lots of moving parts or if the distance and direction between actors and characters is integral to the scene. Kusama distinctly offers a lack of defined geography in some scenes, particularly when it comes to the layout of Eden and David’s house. You’re never really quite sure which room is connected to which or sometimes which floor they’re even on, and while sometimes it does distract, it helps build an atmosphere of uneasiness and a mystery surrounding the location.
Overall, The Invitation is a solid psychological thriller. It’s definitely carried by its acting and direction, and it looks great to boot. It isn’t flawless; There are some small plot holes, and more than a couple moments are predictable, but when this film shines, it shines. If you’re looking for an incredibly tense and uncomfortable way to spend an hour and forty minutes, The Invitation should be your go to film.