There’s something weird going on one night in the Hollywood Hills and the whole film builds up to it, but to say even a little bit about it would blow the whole movie – even the trailer gives too much away. In that sense, The Invitation – despite a very slick and modern feel and an assured depiction of the culture and people we know in today’s world – is a throwback to the best work of the likes of Hitchcock, where the story’s already been put in motion and it’s up to the characters (and us) to try to figure out what’s going on.
LA hipster Will (Logan Marshall Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) have received a very formal dinner invitation to the home Will used to share with former wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman), several other friends and acquaintances of theirs also in attendance.
In what seems to be an omen of what’s to come, they hit and injure a coyote on the winding roads into Hollywood’s elite enclaves, Will having to get out of the car and club it to death with a tyre iron to put it out of its misery.
When they arrive at the party, you’re not sure if there’s something wrong with Will himself, everyone else, or the entire gathering. Even while their other friends chat, laugh and seem normal, Will can barely bring himself to smile, bemused about why he got the invitation in the first place and decidedly uncomfortable about being there.
But Eden and David behave just as strangely. Aside from their other guests that nobody else knows – the imposing and mildly threatening Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) and the girl who seems to be an unhinged, recovering addict, Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) – they seem too happy and too balanced for the tragedy Eden and Will shared that’s alluded to but not explicitly shown until a flashback much later in the film.
The geniality and acceptance all feels forced and uncomfortable, as if everyone at the dinner actually hates and distrusts each other. It’s all done with slow, paranoid tracking shots, barely glimpsed gestures, faces peering nervously around the edges of doorways and close-ups on mundane actions like the switching on of a light or the pouring of wine, all while the violin-plucking soundtrack signals a barely contained sense of what seems to be horror and bloodshed waiting to happen.
It gradually turns out Eden and David have been studying with some New Age guru who preaches forgiveness and letting go, claiming that’s what’s allowed them to move on and find peace, a sense of closure they want for Will too. But when they play a video from the consciousness group they’ve joined, it seems to many among the party to be a cult, something that makes Will only close off and withdraw further.
As the dinner party conversation veers between polite-but-strained and barely-contained hostility the tension builds, and it’s the singular accomplishment of the film (mostly through performance, staging and sound design) that a dinner party among upwardly mobile young professionals can feel so laced with threat and menace.
It’s another accomplishment that when the climactic events do explode forth and the movie takes an abrupt shift in tone to a whole other genre, the rapid turn doesn’t at all disconnect it from the rest of the movie. Even though you might have made an educated guess at what’s really going on and where it might end up, you won’t be prepared for the extent of how it plays out.
To say any more about it would give too much away, but Karen (Girlfight) Kusuma has a very strong command over it all. The Invitation is all about the tone and she’s picked a great cast to help convey it. You might feel at times like it’s taking awhile to get to the point, but there’s a whole lot of payoff for all the tense set-up.