Director Karyn Kusama showed so much promise with her first film, Girlfight, but as with many of the best first-time independent filmmakers, her reputation was tarnished when she was hired to direct a would-be studio blockbuster, which in this case was Charlize Theron’s Aeon Flux, a renowned disaster. The director seemed to be more in her element with 2009’s Jennifer’s Body starring Megan Fox—but let’s just say that some people enjoyed it more than I did.
Kusama’s latest effort, The Invitation, is a return to form even if it’s very different from her earlier films. Surprisingly, it’s also written by Aeon Flux writers Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay.
It starts innocently enough as we watch Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his wife Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) driving to a dinner party being thrown by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman), whom they haven’t seen in years. As they discuss this fact, their car hits a coyote and Will is forced to put it out of its misery, an event that won’t seem to have much significance until much later.
Once they get to Will’s former house, they’re greeted by a group of old friends with all sorts of pleasantries, and it all seems fairly innocuous other than the absence of a missing boyfriend named Choi. Eden is certainly acting upbeat, living some sort of hippy-dippy lifestyle, but there’s also a dark undercurrent to her personality that keeps bubbling near the surface for Will, reminding him of the turbulent end to their marriage.
Then David and Eden’s odd friend Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) shows up and things get even stranger. It doesn’t take long before Eden and David start selling their friends on a spiritual system called “The Invitation.” Of course, our on-guard protagonist becomes suspicious that his ex and her new husband are trying to convert all of them. Still, the friends sit around revealing inner secrets to each other, including Pruitt’s admission that he killed his wife. Things escalate from there, but that’s probably all that can be said about the movie without giving away some of the bigger twists.
The Invitation is first and foremost a character piece, and Kusama has assembled an interesting group of actors that can pull off the dialogue-heavy material. The ensemble is spearheaded by Marshall-Green as Will, whose paranoia builds even as he reflects back on happier times with Eden before whatever happened that broke them apart. Emayatzy Corinealdi’s role as Will’s current wife is played down somewhat in favor of others like Lindsay Burdge, who was quite amazing in Hannah Fiddell’s films.
In this, Burdge plays a sexy houseguest named Sadie, who is as much a mystery as the others, while Michelle Krusiek’s Gina (the one with the missing boyfriend) is also quite fun as the friend with the least inhibitions. Blanchard seems to be channeling Liv Tyler in her role as Eden, and then there is John Carroll Lynch. Few actors are as good as Lynch at coming off so creepy and imposing without saying a word.
The movie is very much a slow burn, leaving you wondering where it’s all leading. Because of this, itsometimes gets into the danger of being buried by its own pacing because things don’t really start to intensify until the last 30 minutes when it begins delivering some true shocks.
Kusama uses the score and sound design effectively to set up a menacing tone even when two people are merely talking, but overall, the film pales in comparison to similar reunion comedies (like Clea Duvall’s The Intervention) and never gets quite as intense or exciting as Jeremy Saulnier’s thriller Green Room (out next week).
The movie’s biggest problem is that it ends with a final scene that comes close to killing any good will set up over the rest of the movie, since it hints at something bigger that may be far more interesting than the film we just watched. And then it ends.
Other than that, it’s hard to fully fault the rest of the film because it’s filled with such fantastic, original concepts and solid performances that it does nevertheless leave a lasting impression.
The Invitation opens in select cities on Friday, April 8.