“The Invitation” begins with a mopey sad-sack named Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his sympathetic girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), hitting an animal that darts in front of their car. Their mood was already sober: they’re going to Will’s ex-wife’s posh house for a dinner party meant as a “reunion of sorts” after some unnamed tragedy split the couple and their friends apart two years ago. Now in addition to being solemn, they’re rattled and unnerved.
And so are we. That incident with the unlucky animal (and I omitted some pertinent details) isn’t connected to the main plot, but it masterfully sets the tone for the movie — off-balance, uneasy — while providing some insight into Will’s character. We all have different ways of dealing with crises and pain. “The Invitation” is about, uh, one of those ways.
Not the best way, probably.
Though it depends on your point of view.
I’ve said too much already.
Will and Kira arrive at the dinner party to find Will’s upscale friends — Gina (Michelle Krusiec), Ben (Jay Larson), Claire (Marieh Delfino), gay couple Tommy (Mike Doyle) and Miguel (Jordi Vilasuso) — all as baffled as he is about why they’re here. Will’s ex, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), basically disappeared after the prior tragedy, and nobody in the group has really socialized since then.
Now Eden has reappeared with a new partner, David (Michiel Huisman), after spending some rejuvenating time in Mexico. No longer the grief-stricken wreck she used to be (and that Will still is), she’s serene and ebullient. She and David met in a therapy group and just HAVE to share with their friends how they’ve managed to let go of their grief and heal their minds. They’ve asked two fellow practitioners of The Invitation (as the program is called) to join the gathering and share their stories. One of them, Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), is a giggling cuckoo bird; the other, Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), is an imposing but gentle-seeming man.
The friends wonder: Did Eden join a cult? Everyone responds with varying degrees of incredulity and scoffing when Eden brings out a laptop to show them an informational video, and the c-word certainly comes up. But maybe it’s just a spiritual self-help program, useful if you’re into that sort of thing, and otherwise harmless. Will is deeply suspicious of it, but his friends recognize that his judgment may be clouded.
Part of the reason “The Invitation” works so well as a paranoid thriller is that it keeps us guessing, right up until the end, about what kind of paranoia is called for. We’re inclined to see things from Will’s point of view, but we have to admit he may be overreacting. Might HE be the problem here? Gina keeps mentioning that her boyfriend was supposed to be here ages ago and hasn’t shown up yet. What’s that all about? These new friends of Eden’s, what’s their deal? Who can be trusted? Or is that not even the relevant question?
The director is Karyn Kusama, who burst onto the scene in 2000 with “Girlfight” (starring Michelle Rodriguez as a boxer), then stumbled with the big-budget sci-fi dud “Aeon Flux” and the Diablo Cody-scripted horror comedy “Jennifer’s Body.” And that was it. Hollywood gave her two chances, then turned its back on her. That’s not nearly as many chances as a lot of directors get, but Kusama isn’t nearly as not-a-woman as most directors are.
Now she’s gone back to her indie roots, working with “Aeon Flux” screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi to create a uniquely intense, darkly humorous, and ultimately jaw-dropping cyclone of a movie. It starts out tense; then it gets entertaining; and then it gets insane. We’re treated to some chilling scenes along the way (Pruitt’s monologue about his wife’s death is a macabre gem), hindered only a little by weak performances from some of the supporting players. But the ending? True greatness. This one’ll stick with you, long after company has gone home.
B+ (1 hr., 40 min.; )