The Invitation starts and ends with death.
Will and Kira, a couple played by Logan Marshall-Green and Emayatzy Corinealdi, are driving to a dinner party, high up in the Hollywood Hills, distractedly discussing the predicted strangeness of the evening ahead. An ostentatious invite (“It’s so thick!” Kira remarks) from Will’s ex-wife Eden, who has been absent from his life for two years, has also been sent to the friends they once shared, all of whom have grown estranged from her as well. Will’s anxiety is palpable, as is Kira’s desire to calm him but moments from arriving at Eden’s extravagant house, one that she once shared with him, their car hits a coyote. Will is left with no option but to kill it with a tire iron, a gruesome act of mercy that serves as a horrible mood-setter for what’s to come.
Given the release strategy one might expect for a schlocky midnight movie (a SXSW premiere with an on-demand bow a year later), The Invitation makes clear within its first act that there’s more on its mind than gory theatrics. It’s an uneasily slow burn, a devious dripfeed that places us in a loosely familiar scenario – dinner with friends – but underscores it with a clammy, unshakeable sense that something terrible is going to happen. Director Karyn Kusama, who broke out with Girlfight in 2000 but has mostly struggled to find her place ever since, referred to her film as being “a metaphor for what the nightmare of anxiety really is” with Will being confronted with the horrifying dilemma that many who struggle with anxiety face: is my fear irrational or is someone or something going to hurt me or those I love?
For Will, something already has. In flashbacks we learn that the son he shared with his ex-wife was killed in a devastating accident and his ghost haunts the house or at least Will’s memory of it, cruel bursts of another life, a happier one, flooding back with every painful minute he spends there. Grief has wrecked him and what he can’t quite understand is why Eden isn’t quite as wounded as he remains. How can the woman who slit her wrists over their sink in a howl of despair now be dreamily talking of a newfound happiness? What elixir has she found to make it all go away? And why can’t he feel the same?
For those new to the film, I’ll leave the specifics to a minimum but it’s revealed early on that Eden has subscribed to a new system of beliefs, referred to as a cult by one of her more suspicious old friends, introduced into her life by her handsome yet disconcertingly self-possessed new partner who’s invited two of his fellow disciples to the dinner. The discovery of this is the first in a string of eyebrow-raising discussions that forces us to imagine ourselves as part of the gathering. As events turn from strange to unsettling, we start to ask at what point we would leave and what unspoken social constraints would be stopping us from trusting our gut instincts. But there’s a vital caveat. The fluffy new-age rhetoric that Eden and her new friends have espoused is very much in line with their location. “Yeah they’re a little weird but this is LA, they’re harmless,” a friend tells Will early on. There’s eye-rolling for sure but in a sort of resigned, familiar way, the kind of gentler reaction that wouldn’t fly in many other cities. It keeps them there for longer than what might seem believable, along with an awkward sense of pity, hoping that Eden’s new life is all she’s claiming it to be but deep down, knowing that not to be the case.
Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi keep their cards close to their chest but what’s ultimately the biggest surprise is not the gruesome violence that comes but the piercing sadness that follows. As with the similarly under-seen Couple in a Hole (a gut-punch of a drama about a couple who go feral in the French countryside after their son dies), The Invitation is about the impossibility of grieving simultaneously with someone you love, of believing that if the pain is the same at the start then it will also go away in the same way at the end and of the horrible things you might be driven to do just to make that pain subside even a little. It’s an unnerving puzzle to see pieced together, both frightening and poignant, and Kusama has no interest in pulling us back from the edge she’s pushed us to. The final note is audaciously bleak, a stinging reminder that grief and trauma are all around us, a reminder that many of us might not need right now.
The Invitation is available to stream on Netflix in the US and UK