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The Invitation Is a Slowburn of Old Friends, Appetizers, and Terror

The Invitation is a serious slowburn that walks a carefully constructed line between Will’s suspicions and paranoia, and it mesmerizes through its frenzied conclusion.
By  · Published on April 7th, 2016
Falcon Films

We all handle grief in our own way. Some follow the traditional seven stages, some bury it deep inside and others give up on life all together. And then there are the people who throw dinner parties.

Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) is one of the latter, and now two years after the death of their young son and her subsequent disappearance she’s returned home to the friends she left behind. She has a new husband, David (Michiel Huisman), and they’re back living in the home where little Tye passed away. The deliriously happy couple have invited their friends to dinner as a way to reconnect and make peace, but when Will arrives with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) by his side he immediately feels uncomfortable.

Part of it is the house and the memories of his son, but there’s also something in the air that seems just a little bit off. The windows are barred, David keeps the doors locked with a key on the inside and the couple have a pair of guests (Lindsay Burdge and the always wonderful John Carroll Lynch) staying with them who are unknown to Will and the six other friends who’ve arrived for the reunion. Will’s feeling only intensifies when Eden and her new friends show the group a video of a woman dying.

Director Karyn Kusama‘s long overdue return to feature filmmaking comes six years after her much-maligned Jennifer’s Body, but while that film suffered from an inability to balance its horror and comedy halves her latest is far more assured. The Invitation is a serious slowburn that walks a carefully constructed line between Will’s suspicions and paranoia, and it mesmerizes through its frenzied conclusion.

The script (from Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi) puts viewers in Will’s shoes throughout, and Marshall-Green does a fantastic job of making us feel his loss as well as the anger he still holds inside. The film opens with a mercy killing to stop the suffering of a coyote hit by Will’s car, and Marshall-Green shows guilt in his reticence and rage in the way he dispatches the animal. Both of these feelings play into his growing concerns over the evening. Small things during the evening stand out as odd, but his suspicions are met with explanations and answers that seem legitimate enough. Are latent grief and the return of his old love causing paranoid fears, or is something more going on here?

Eva and David are in fact up to something more, and that something is a new-agey self help program called The Invitation. It’s all about letting go of grief and pain in order to live a more fulfilling and happy life, and it’s what moved Eva beyond her own grief. Some of Will’s friends laugh it off and others take offense to being ambushed with a sales pitch, but Will is convinced that something darker is at play here. That slippery focus — between what we know, what we believe and what we suspect — shifts and wiggles throughout leaving us on edge until the truth finally hits.

In addition to being a suspenseful and well-acted ride the film also looks fantastic. Set almost entirely inside Eva and David’s house in the Hollywood hills, the modern construct works to offset the fear of something evil at play. The playfulness and familiarity does the same, keeping viewers off balance as we and Will attempt to get a grip on the evening.

Kusama holds some shots on silence or pained faces acknowledging that the idea of dealing with grief is a serious one, but she allows time for pressure readjustments too. Humorous moments, exchanges and expressions ease up on the tension before other events turn it back up again. Like most dinner parties, viewers are given brief periods of relaxation between bouts of fist-clenching suspense and fear-tinged curiosity.

The Invitation can ultimately go one of two directions with its ending, and in that sense there’s a minor lack of surprise. But its ability to keep us unsure as to which direction it’s heading until the final minutes is a major accomplishment.

The Upside: Near perfect balance between suspicion and paranoia; strong slowburn; cast/character diversity; great ending

The Downside: Some obvious and/or frustrating plot turns

Editor’s note: Our review of The Invitation originally ran during Fantastic Fest 2015, and we’re re-posting it as the film opens in theaters this week.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.