film Karyn Kusama

THE INVITATION Review: One Gnarly Farce

Monday, April 18, 2016 Rob Samuelson

The Invitation

Director: Karyn Kusama
Writers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Lindsay Burdge, John Carroll Lynch
Rating: Four-and-a-half stars out of five
Available in limited release and on demand now

At the beginning of Karyn Kusama's The Invitation, it has been a long two years for central character Will, played by Logan Marshall-Green. His beard is raggedy and his long hair is combed in an unconvincing attempt to appear put together. His movie-star good looks are hidden under the veneer of not caring about anything besides his internal problems. As he and his new girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), drive up the curving roads of the Hollywood hills, they examine with unease the eponymous invitation, to a dinner party at the house Will used to share with his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard). It's not a normal situation for anyone involved, but even in these earliest moments, Kusama's camera holds on these ill-at-ease characters in a way that implies a deep sense of obligation.

And then the universe places a startling, frustrating obstacle in their way in the form of a coyote that darts in front of the car. Kusama's choice to employ sound designer Phillip Blackford pays off here for the first of many times throughout the film. Kira's shocked scream pierces as the brakes screech and the car, unable to come to a complete stop in time, lands with a sickening thump against the wild animal. The next move to dull the sound of Will performing his duty of putting the animal out of its misery with the only tool available to him – a tire iron – shows this creative team's mastery of the production elements necessary to twist an audience's emotions.

And twist those emotions do, over and over again through an excruciating dinner party hosted by Eden and her new boyfriend, David (Michiel Huisman). The two lovers have recently returned from a spiritual journey in Mexico with a faith group meant to help people get over loss. And Eden certainly appears to have been able to move past the trauma suffered by her and Will years earlier. She smiles, which is more than Will can say as he sits sullenly among their former friend support group, most of whom show up to help the erstwhile couple get some closure.

It's been a while since most of these people have seen each other, whether it's because of a misguided attempt to provide space for healing or a helpless inability to know what to say to people who are obviously hurting. It doesn't help that Eden and David have made the night about “helping” the group heal their grief with the same methods they learned from what Will is convinced was a cult. The hosting couple brings a pair of new friends (performed by Lindsay Burdge and Fargo's John Carroll Lynch) they met at their retreat, which throws the already strained dynamic into a place of bizarre unease. But nearly everyone powers their way through their misgivings out of care for each other and a desire to help one another achieve a better emotional mooring in the world after a tragedy that affected everyone.

For much of The Invitation, things can work out any number of ways. One person's cult can be another's salvation. People talk past each other as they find themselves unable to understand others' (or their own) grieving processes. All the while, Will's growing nervousness pushes him to retreat within himself, to tour the house he once resided in, to face the harsh memories head-on to show his ex-wife his disapproval of what he sees as her ignoring her own pain. This is when Blackford's sound design rears its masterful head again, as sliding doors take on the aural qualities of a samurai sword being quickly unsheathed. The simple act of chewing a piece of meat becomes nauseating when it is amplified into a wet, gnashing churn. Absurdly expensive wine flows into glasses with a dizzying regularity, the sound of which drowns out all else, furthering the film's goal of showing the ways people try to keep themselves from facing their troubles. A friend placing a hand on Will's shoulder startles him to the point where he feels threatened because of his inwardness and his lack of attention paid to the people around him trying to make the best of a supremely uncomfortable night.

Will's agitation and suspicion of the motivations for the party begin to ruin everyone's night. For much of The Invitation's middle section, it takes on a fascinating and anachronistic farcical tone built on a foundation of escalating misunderstandings. It is dark and full of shared trauma on the part of everyone on the screen, and it never forgets that. But there is an uncomfortable humor that grows out of these people, most of whom have known each other for decades, taking a cautious step forward, if only to see how weird the night can get. They play games where each member of the group gets to shine in a way that reveals an internal life for every person around the coffee table. These folks are not empty placeholders to serve the plot's every whim. They have interactions that indicate their place in the world, their careers, their relationships, all presented in humorous and deeply relatable ways.

But The Invitation would likely not be able to sustain itself if it continued on the path of having things both ways. It presents evidence of malevolence throughout the night. As much fun as it is to try to decide whether everything is in Will's head or if there is more to the things he observes, the movie would do itself a disservice if it were to not make a choice about revealing the truth of the night in question.

It makes a bold choice and pursues that decision with ferocity and expedience. The impeccably shot and acted thrills of the film's final section do nothing to diminish the weight of the earlier moments' themes of finding one's own way to deal with loss, in a surrogate family's responsibility to its most vulnerable members in their time of greatest need, and in a deep suspicion of self-help gurus who wish to remove a person from their pain by sweeping that pain under a rug. In fact, the last 20 minutes serve to drive home those ideas in visceral and visual ways that could otherwise have gone unachieved. A catharsis of sorts is reached in a haunting and beautiful way. The film's final two shots, and the brutal possibilities they entail, bring this single-location black comedy into the realm of universality, broadening the themes to encompass hundreds or maybe thousands of other people. There is both comfort and terror in that.

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