“I’ve been waiting to die since the moment it happened”
Death plays a large role in our lives, mortality seemingly out of reach but never forgotten. For some it knocks early—or at least earlier than we’d hope to believe. Disease, accident, and fate remind us how precious our time on Earth is. We grieve, pray, repress, and overcome, the inevitable sorrow bringing as much strength to move on as agony to stop everything. And nothing is more heartbreaking or painful than the passing of a child taken too soon and without reason. This type of tragedy wreaks havoc on a person’s outlook on life, spiraling those affected into a state of complete isolation and darkness. It’s something you never lose sight of no matter how much time has passed. The memory is always one stray thought away.
Where Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard) are concerned, the absence of their son Ty has reached two years. The aftermath split them apart, depression hitting both differently with the former retreating within and the latter seeking suicide. They haven’t seen the other during that span—none of their friends have. Eden fell in love with another griever from group therapy (Michiel Huisman‘s David) and off they went. Will did his best to put it all behind him, falling in love himself with Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi). It’s been a struggle, but they’ve moved forward to begin a new life together. So receiving an invitation to Eden and David’s home for a dinner party came as a surprise. But the promise of catharsis proved too great to ignore.
This isn’t quite what the title of Karyn Kusama‘s The Invitation (written by her husband Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi) alludes to, however. That name belongs to a cultish organization able to erase the emotional pain death supplies those willing to believe. Eden and David have been in Mexico learning Dr. Joseph’s (Toby Huss) ways, washing away their pain to smile again. This newfound lease on life allows the opening of their home (the same one Will and Eden shared, the site of Ty’s demise) to those they love in order to share in their joy. It isn’t necessarily a recruitment dinner or masquerade for money—Eden and David merely want to reintegrate themselves with friends, explain what happened and find acceptance for their path.
The question becomes how far they will go to do so opposite the lengths Will will go to stop them. He doesn’t want to forget Ty. He sees Eden’s Stepford demeanor and tenuous grasp on sanity as an affront to their son’s memory. But Ty did exist; his love was real. Suffering the pain of his loss is a direct result of that love and shouldn’t be diminished. Paranoia sets in, triggered by flashes of remembrance (good and bad) provided by Will returning to his former home. He can’t accept how Eden and David acting like nothing happened. He can’t accept that their friends (Michelle Krusiec‘s Gina, Mike Doyle‘s Tommy, Jordi Vilasuso‘s Miguel, Jay Larson‘s Ben, and Marieh Delfino‘s Claire) can pretend the party’s atmosphere doesn’t feel wrong.
And who are their strange guests? What does bringing two more “Invitation” followers do to help reconcile time lost between friends? Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) is a wild child with a vacant expression of pure delight while Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) brings a stoic physicality that makes him someone to fear rather than embrace. Cult games ensue, doors are locked, and a lantern is lit. Discomfort rules the evening as expensive wine is imbibed, weirdness is dismissed with “It’s just Los Angeles,” and Will finds his longing to connect with Ty a reason to move about the house. What he ultimately finds only fuels his paranoia and anger. Is something nefarious really happening? Or has his grief consumed him so completely that there’s no way to escape?
The filmmakers do a wonderful job keeping this answer close to their vests until the climax erupts. Red herrings are found and dismissed shortly after, each mistake turning the group against Will or he against them. The mood shifts from eerie to joyous, awkward to fun and we glean details of Ty’s death as the movie progresses forward while each friend finds his/her way to Will so they may help him cope and/or express their love. We want to believe Will assumptions, but it’s difficult not to align with Tommy and Miguel’s point of view. Everyone gets through tragedy differently and if Eden and David are using the “Invitation” to do so, that’s their prerogative. Nobody has made any inclination towards joining so let them have their peace.
Kusama ratchets up the suspense as a result of this logical interpretation of events, constantly pushing the walls in on her characters despite sprinkling in moments to express how nothing is actually amiss. Marshall-Green portrays Will’s damaged psyche perfectly while Blanchard and Huisman expertly embody their cult-like glaze. Once the bomb explodes it’s their seemingly steely-faced believers who become the most intriguing players because we witness their wavering faith as the truth is revealed. Maybe Dr. Joseph’s ways are merely masking the feelings they need to articulate before finding clarity. Maybe the means by which they’re keeping up the façade take them way too far. Sharing their desires becomes an intense exercise that only breeds more questions as to why they’re doing so in the first place.
The Invitation is ultimately a taut thriller utilizing its claustrophobic setting to full effect. Even when characters are outside they’re either enclosed by fences and foliage or seen by someone else from behind barred-up glass. The opening prologue might be too on the nose by the end, but as a mood setter it works nicely to position death atop every single action from brainwashed emptiness to saturated pain to an empathetic longing to be supportive. It’s a slow burn only because it works towards its explosion gradually; it’s never boring considering the numerous presumptions introduced to be debunked or ignored until it’s too late. Something is most definitely going on, but deciding whether to fear the “Invitation” or Will is solely up to you. The film will reveal its intentions soon enough.
courtesy of Drafthouse Films