Monday’s Movie You Might Have Missed: The Invitation (2016)
This is a movie that understands grief and anxiety, how they exacerbate each other, how they leave your nerves perpetually frayed, how they leave you perpetually on guard. This is a movie that knows how much more chilling a thriller can be when the primary scare is uncertainty, the sense that something is wrong but you can’t put a finger on it. This is the root fear of anxiety, after all: not that something horrible is happening, but that something horrible is going to happen, you just don’t know when or why or where.
The Invitation defies simple genre categorization. It’s a drama about grief and some of the most understandable human fear. It’s also a horror film about when that fear mingles with fear of something more sinister, and when there are just enough clues, nerves, and odd strangers that that shadow begins to grow into a shape both distinct and terrifying.
The film opens on Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) driving to a dinner party. It’s at his ex-wife Eden’s place. Eden (Tammy Blanchard) has been out of touch with everyone she knows for two years. Her marriage with Will fell apart after their son’s death. She disappeared into Mexico and emerged with a new boyfriend, David (Michael Huisman) in tow. She has invited Will, Kira, and several of their closest friends to a dinner party in her home in the Hollywood Hills. On the way to the party, Will hits a coyote with his car. Rather than leave it to die, he kills with it a tire iron. His nerves won’t be any less frayed the rest of the night.
The Invitation was directed by Karyn Kusama. She knows how to film anxiety. Will is jittery and uncomfortable from the moment he arrives at Eden’s home, which they once shared. Every room triggers memories of his son, or of the aftermath of his son’s death, when he and Eden were at their lowest. In the present, Eden emerges, smiling widely, talking serenely, looking angelic in a flowing white dress as she talks proudly of how she has completely overcome her grief. This needles Will. He doesn’t seem to believe her, and fears immediately that she has come under the influence of some sort of cult. But the script, by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, is smarter than to rely on fear of a religious cult as the main narrative thread. That would be the stuff of a conventional thriller. The Invitation is more invested in its characters, more curious about them, than convention would allow.
Logan Marshall-Green is splendid in a role that demands a lot from him. His face is open and earnest. Hiding behind long hair and a full beard, his eyes convey his deep personal wounds. Watch how he conveys Will’s agitation, his profound discomfort at being in this house that fills him with pain. It’s a beautiful performance. Blanchard is excellent too, selling a role that could easily devolve into camp with a less measured performance. It’s essential for us to believe that Eden believes completely in her transformation. More than that, we need to be able to at least consider for a moment the possibility that whatever she did in Mexico actually helped her.
That moment doesn’t have to last, however, and soon David shows the party a video that spells out his and Eden’s beliefs in ways that discomfort everyone at the party to varying degrees. Will is deeply unsettled. Some of his friends laugh it off, attempting to comfort Will, insisting that Eden and David are simply the sort of harmless New Agers who are dime a dozen in a city like Los Angeles. And yet around every corner Will senses that something is deeply wrong in his old house. David and Eden have two friends from their group at the party. Both are quite odd, casually saying things that make everyone deeply uncomfortable. David insists on locking the doors of the house. Expensive wine flows freely. Will refuses to partake.
Kusama deftly handles the audience’s wavering sense of discomfort with the party. This is not an action-packed film, but it is a tense one. It never reveals its hand until the precise moment it needs to. Until that point, it uses Will’s skyrocketing anxiety as a main source of tension. As an anxious person, I would absolutely want to check out of the party early. And yet we can never quite shake the possibility that his anxiety- amplified exponentially by his grief, by seeing his ex-wife for the first time in so long, by the fact that she seems to have moved on completely from their tragedy- is warping his view.
All this makes The Invitation sound like a heavy drama. How is it, then, a horror film? I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say: it drips with realistic, sweaty dread. Its depictions of how all-consuming grief and anxiety are at times chilling. It swerves into territory that is deeply unsettling, even disturbing. By the end, The Invitation scared me. Like the best horror films, its scares come from places in the psyche that every person has. It is the fear that comes from a soul that is grieving and raw. A fear that can only be coaxed out with skill and empathy. The Invitation is one of the best films of the year.