The Invitation balances paranoia, dread and overwhelming grief on scales that at times could be a bit more balanced.
The allure of a cult is obvious; a charming, usually older white male guides a group of beleaguered subjects to greater planes of existence. All cults cost is your money, and what do you need that for on the higher astral plane? For the grief-stricken, cults work doubly so; not only does this disarming man offer you a chance to escape your burdens, but in many cases he preaches a chance to make up for them, or see them done right. What could be more appetizing?
The allure of watching cults from the outside is similarly obvious: we are offered the chance to feel morally and spiritually superior those who might actually be duped by a wolf in sheep’s clothing, all the while marveling at the leader’s charisma, perhaps wondering for a moment ourselves if there is something to be gleaned from the cult’s wackadoo mantras.
Director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body), working with writer/wusband Phil Hay and writer Matt Manfredi (Ride Along (?!), Clash Of The Titans (?!?!)), merges these two innate temptations into a thoughtful, atmospheric chamber piece about one of the stranger dinner parties you’ve ever been to in The Invitation. Set in the hills of Los Angeles, the movie establishes its dour walking pace in the first scene, when “protagonist” Will, played by a scruffy Logan Marshall-Green (what up, Trey Atwood!), and Kira, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, hit a wolf on the winding road up to the party location. The word protagonist is quotationed in the previous sentence for a reason; from the outset, Will is not your typical Pollyanna thriller good guy. Will’s demons are all over Marshall-Green’s sometimes over-emoting face, and they only get more serious as the script forces Will to confront his greatest tragedies.
The titular invite is for a dinner party, hosted by Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard, channeling a batty Lana Del Rey) and her new beau David (Treme’s Michiel Huisman) at the house Will and Eden used to share together. While the script goes out of its way to justify exactly why Will would want to revisit such a traumatic location in such bizarre circumstances — the party is nominally to reconnect a group of friends who lost touch two years ago — The Invitation’s core premise feels frustratingly unrealistic. If we are given to believe the trauma that Kusama shows us in Will’s semi-psychotic flashbacks, there is almost zero reason Will would even entertain the idea of accepting an invite like this.
Unfortunately, the suspension of disbelief issues don’t end there. Once the core group of dinner partiers are settled in (Will/Kira, Eden/David, gay couple Tommy & Miguel, wild child Gina, unhappy dad Ben and reasonable loner Claire), David and Eden, with the help of too-overtly menacing “friends” Pruitt (John Caroll Lynch, a natural) and Sadie (Lindsay Burdge, trying too hard in a good way), go straight into defining their group, a loose collective based in Mexico that seeks to shed our grief, fear and hatred by communicating with a higher plane, sometimes through death. This is all done through an instructional video which concludes with group leader Dr. Joseph (Toby Huss) instructing someone on the proper way to die, and then watching them do so in front of the camera. The group is understandably shaken up, but there’s a logical break here. While all of the friends acknowledge that there’s something wrong with Eden/David/Pruitt/Sadie’s group, only one of them eventually decides that this is cause to just bow out of the party a little early. The rest find odd, barely believable excuses to stay, and the movie proceeds with these slightly false realisms for the rest of its run time.
Most of the characters get little time to prove themselves as anything more than cardboard standees with one or two specific attributes, a frustrating thriller cliche that Hay/Manfredi could’ve walked away from in a chamber piece such as this. Instead, the movie spends too long hammering at Marshall-Green’s lack of reliability as a narrator, saddling him with heaps of trauma and grief that, while believable in this unbelievable setting, don’t need the air space they get here. What other narrative time there is gets eaten by red herrings and plot development — why does David keep key-locking the doors, why is there phenolbarbitol in Eden’s bedroom dresser… what the hell is Sadie’s deal?
These feints towards possible outcomes are all the more frustrating when the movie proceeds exactly how you would think it will — there are only so many places a dinner party hosted by death cultists can go, and The Invitation goes to the one you’re probably most familiar with. Kusama has a fascinating directorial eye, but she can’t seem to pump all of the tension out of these elements because the characters just keep talking. She flexes impressively in moments of quiet — Will watching Sadie make faces (for some unexplained reason), or the feet of the partiers ascending a staircase. She also makes the most of the house, a masterpiece of location scouting if ever there were one, highlighting and low-lighting the labyrinthine corners of the structure to wring as much dread out of the viewer as possible.
The Invitation has more going for it than most cult thrillers do. Marshall-Green does yeoman’s work keeping Will’s dread afloat and relatable to the viewer amid an escalating series of disbeliefs. Corinealdi’s Kira isn’t given much of a character, but she succeeds as the most confident and reasonable character of the bunch. Grief can no doubt be a powerful instigator for otherwise unbelievable behavior, and Will and Eden’s relationship is dissected from this sense to great effect. Most prominently Kusama does a good job of livening up the sometimes overly talky scenes with a menacing melange of yellows and blacks. But if Hay & Manfredi were seeking to simultaneously make a statement about Los Angeles’ notably culty history (Manson, the Children of God, Scientology) and use said craziness to justify the characters’ sometimes ludicrous acceptance of increasingly weird dinner party banter/games, then The Invitation buckles under its own weight.