The Invitation (2016) by Karyn Kusama
Review by Andrew Swafford
(Disclaimer: if you absolutely don’t want to know ANYTHING about The Invitation for fear of plot spoilers, you should not read this review. However, I’m going to make the argument that you should not worry so much about that. Cheers.)
Every time I heard about The Invitation prior to watching it, the words of its viewers were delivered with a hushed urgency, simultaneously begging for the movie to be seen but also practically apologizing for even mentioning it. “I can’t tell you anything about it, but…” is how most early reviews of the film have begun, more or less. The current state of mindless spoiler-paranoia may have hit an all-time high with megafans freaking about production details from the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but for some reason I took the extreme secrecy of The Invitation very seriously. Maybe it’s because I’m just a big horror fan in general, and I place a premium on supremely good and pure cinematic horror experiences. Or maybe it’s because my favorite movie of the year is currently The Witch, a movie with such subtle scares and twists that I hesitate to even hint at them in this article for fear of tainting a first-watch for someone. Needless to say, I began watching The Invitation fully expecting to have my little mind blown by the hyped-up surprises it was sure to have in store.
I have good news and bad news.
Bad news first? The Invitation is not the unspeakable mindfuck that the press about it led me to believe. Maybe it’s just because I’ve watched Faults, House of the Devil, Funny Games, and Martha Marcy May Marlene all too recently, but I saw the “twist” of this movie coming by a solid 45 minutes. If I just inadvertently spoiled The Invitation for you by association with those four other films, I don’t really apologize. And that’s because the GOOD news is…this is a solid movie, and your experience with it isn’t going to be any less enjoyable because you know some craziness is going to go down in the last act. Face it—you knew some kind of craziness was going to go down in the last act when you saw the trailer, or the poster, or whatever. It’s a horror film about some rich people in a cult—there are many MUCH weirder directions it could go than the one that it ends up going. (Which is, basically, slightly deranged people poisoning, shooting, and stabbing each other. Pretty pedestrian horror fare, honestly. At the end of the day, this is a tight genre film, well executed but not worth wringing your hands about. I won’t spoil the last shot, though, which has been well established as a total knockout.)
The Invitation, directed by Karyn Kusama of Jennifer’s Body fame, is about a recently divorced man named Will (played by Logan Marshall-Green—who here looks like Tom Hardy as a member of Fleet Foxes) going to a dinner party reunion hosted by his ex-wife at the house they used to share. Will brings his recently-met girlfriend (played by the criminally underutilized Emayatzy Corinealdi from Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere) and arrives to find that his ex-wife Eden has taken a new partner as well. They both seem happy, which is reassuring—but just a little too happy, like their faces have been surgically reinforced to achieve maximum elation. Will’s natural inclination is always to act cold and distant (the film opens with his girlfriend calling to him twice from the passenger seat of the car he is driving before getting his attention), but the actor’s performance suggests this isn’t just a result of going for the strong-and-silent type. The film’s editing and use of micro-flashbacks lets us see from Will’s perspective, which is thoroughly traumatized from something left ambiguous for most of the film. This approach feels like a more on-the-nose take on the aforementioned Martha Marcy May Marlene’s approach to dealing with memory as influenced by trauma, but it works.
The Invitation’s spin on this is that much of the film involves Will re-exploring the enormous house he used to live in, and much of the film’s scare-factor comes from the fact that his painful visions seem to be triggered by specific locations, so each new hallway and cracked door brings with it a sense of dread over what psychic essence might be waiting around the corner—it’s a more psychological take on the very physical world of Ti West’s House of the Devil (a film that perfectly captures the fundamental fear of being maybe-alone-maybe-not in an unfamiliar place) Moreso than West’s film, though, the psychological component to the house exploration in Kusama’s The Invitation reminded me of Toni Morrison’s seminal novel Beloved (which I will absolutely not spoil) and that book’s concept of “rememory”—revisiting old memories due to inhabiting tainted locations, in which the events of past can be said to always be occurring. Morrison writes:
“time…It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.”
Later, she gets more concrete, sort of:
“Out there…there [are] places in which things so bad [have] happened that when you [go] near them it [happens] again.”
I’m sure it’s been done elsewhere before, but cinematically recreating the relationship between memory, time, and physical space through flashback-heavy editing is perhaps what The Invitation does best, and is definitely how it elbows its way to being a singular horror film.
There is a downside to this, however. The Invitation is an ambitious film in terms of thematics (visuals, too—check out Christie Lemire’s comments about this in the What the Flick review), but unfortunately I think the characters are much too thin for what the film sets out to do. In order to explore trauma and grieving in a really substantial way, the audience needs to really have a concrete understanding of what these characters have experienced in the past and what they are going through mentally and emotionally in the moment (Martha, again, does the former really well; The Babadook is amazing at the latter). Yes, The Invitation gives plenty of indication that Will is suffering from the effects of divorce as well as the death of a loved one, but there are so few details given about either one of these things (or even what he is like as a person to begin with), that it feels more like a vague cop-out attempt at characterization than it does a mysterious puzzle to solve.
The general internet-film-criticism-sphere seems to be awakening to the realization that great arty horror films have been coming out left and right for the past few years, and it seems that people have been quick to embrace The Invitation as part of that modern strand of exemplary genre cinema. I have to honestly say that I was let down. Maybe the hype built up an unrealistic expectation, but even putting all of that aside, I feel confident in stating that I don’t think the craft of this film is anywhere close to the mastery of something like The Witch. It’s pulpy and fun, and Kusama and her crew have really interesting ideas in terms of how to make use of a contained environment to add dramatic effect, but at the end of the day this story and its characters aren’t substantial enough to make me want to investigate its secrets further—I don’t think it really has as many secrets as it thinks it does.