“The film’s final half-hour is fully realized and thoroughly engaging. The problem is that getting there requires sitting through a stretch of time twice that length which is generally tedious.”
by Ken Bakely
NOTE: If you have any interest at all in seeing this film, stop reading this review right now. There’s a very vital plot twist which occurs around midway through The Invitation’s second act, and its effect is heavily reliant upon the viewer being entirely unaware of its existence beforehand.
Initially taking jabs at vapid social gatherings among affluent people in major American cities, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation unexpectedly transforms into something much different two-thirds of the way through its 99 minute runtime. To elaborate on the specifics of this adjustment would be to ruin one of the best finales of any movie this year, as this film’s final half-hour is fully realized and thoroughly engaging. The problem is that getting there requires sitting through a stretch of time twice that length which is generally tedious – aside from a few interesting scenes which act as foreboding hints, one is reminded of the circular dinner party dialogue and drooping exposition of something like Coherence. (Of course, I’m in the vast minority in my dislike for that movie, so many may take this comparison as a compliment.)
In any case, there’s still a plot, however messily it evolves. The Invitation is set in a sprawling mid-century dwelling in the Hollywood Hills. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) has been invited to this house for a dinner party. It’s the home of his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). Their reunion here is on strained terms – their relationship disintegrated not too long ago, after their young son died in an accident. Nevertheless, Will has begrudgingly decided to attend, and brings his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Friends and acquaintances, mutual or strangers, make up the remainder of the group, many of them having suffered a sudden and difficult loss.
At first, the evening seems rather normal, apart from the inevitable awkwardness which comes from such functions. But things start to take a turn for the surreal when Eden and David begin espousing the teachings of a new-age philosopher whom they met during a recent trip to Mexico. The man, referred to only as Dr. Joseph, specializes in alternative forms of dealing with grief and accepting mortality, which seem to combine conventional culture with strange spiritual undertones, cultish in nature. Eden and David’s guests have a mixed reaction to this unorthodox ideology, but casually dismiss it. However, Will is still on edge, concerned by the increasingly strange behavior that his hosts pass onto their guests, fostering an environment of blunt honesty without any filters at all. Their insistence on hearing progressively personal truths and engaging in deeper, darker emotions becomes unsettling to Will. He’s convinced that something is about to happen, and even though he has no idea exactly what that could be. That, of course, makes it all the more frightening.
The Invitation is filled with ominous indicators of its forthcoming tensions. Bobby Shore’s crisp, squarely focused cinematography begins to push in on the actors, and they are cast in lateral, shuttered lighting. He and Kusama give away a number of subtle hints of discomfort in the lead-up to the film’s shattering finish. These are good things. These are very good things. That’s because the last act of this movie is by far the strongest thing going. It’s a no-holds-barred redemption of a screenplay wallowing in a kind of uncovered mediocrity, spitting hazily written conversations that fail to intrigue except in their most bizarre moments, such as an instance in which a disarmingly calm middle-aged man (John Carroll Lynch) recounts to the group a story of the fateful night in which he accidentally killed his wife during an argument, and had to spend several years in prison for manslaughter. The monologue is delivered without musical elaboration or unnecessary cutaways, and Lynch’s performance, fully ensconced in a matter-of-fact demeanor, is all too unsettling.
That scene has a startling degree of clarity which is nearly absent from the rest of The Invitation’s setup. The much-praised ending is intense – you’ll get no argument from me. The climax is a beauty of filmmaking and narrative prowess, as the whole production shifts multiple gears and enters the territory of a white-knuckle thriller. Kusama and company handle this aspect of the project with brilliant energy and ability. But the rest of the film is not as cleverly structured or clear-headed, and that’s a shortcoming hard to ignore. Moments of potentially effective portension are dashed by Kusama’s overarching sense of mounting and layering that the characters she has introduced disappear, and are replaced by a handful archetypes – suspicious guy with emotional baggage we learn of through flashbacks, open-minded girlfriend, ex-wife, ex-wife’s new husband, weird older man with a dark past, etc. – which ultimately take away from the full intended impact of what the movie does very well.