'The Invitation': Fantastic Fest Review

The Invitation Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Fantasic Fest
An effective, small-scale chiller.

Karyn Kusama returns with a dinner party-cum-cult sales pitch.

A loved one you haven't seen in years has gathered you and other old friends together. It quickly becomes clear that this reunion is less about good food and fond memories than an effort to introduce you to the new belief system she thinks will wipe away all your earthly woes. At what point is it appropriate to segue from "thanks, but it's not for me" to "I'm getting out of this house right now — who's with me"? That question drives The Invitation, Karyn Kusama's itchy single-location drama, her first feature in six years. A play-like film in which some presumably unintended awkward notes contribute to the unsettled mood even when they strain credibility, it's a welcome human-scale outing for a director who stumbled upon leaping from 2000's breakout debut Girlfight to the would-be tentpole dud Aeon Flux.

Logan Marshall-Green (with a beard making him look like a less intense Tom Hardy) stars as Will, who has been invited to dinner with ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) after having not seen her for two years. Both have found new partners in the time since their son's death tore them apart, and the four are joined at Eden's house not only by a handful of old friends but by two strangers known only to her and new hubby David (Michiel Huisman). Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) is a younger woman with an air of hippie hedonism; Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) quietly projects a domineering-father vibe.

Neither newcomer makes the old friends feel at ease, but this only seems to matter to Will, who has plenty of other reasons to feel anxious in the house he once called home. He's haunted by quick visions of his dead son; David affects a too-much, too-soon intimacy; and Eden, once so grief-struck he had to stop her from suicide, wears sickly-sweet smiles so condescendingly blissful they're hard to look at.

She attributes her newfound contentment to experiences the couple had in Mexico. "I'm free of all that useless pain," she tells Will. "I want you to have that, too." Enter "The Invitation," which one partygoer has heard described as "the new est." The hosts play something like an indoctrination video, then start a Truth or Dare-like game they learned at the Mexico retreat.

It's around this time that viewers will start to share Will's discomfort with the fact that security bars have been installed on all the house's windows. But the film may not be headed in the same direction as his suspicions. For much of its running time, we're encouraged to view Will as an unreliable judge of his surroundings, whose increasingly disruptive behavior is as problematic as any of the join-us talk of his off-putting but not necessarily brainwashed hosts.

While the cast never really captures the kind of Big Chill collective personality that might get us invested in the threat to their old bonds, we do certainly feel for Will's new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi, star of Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere), saddled with the job of smoothing over the night's many rough patches. Those patches eventually get unsmoothable in a climactic sequence that more than pays off on the sometimes iffy buildup — building to a chilling final scene likely to trigger memories of many other cults whose blissed-out followers wound up very far from Eden.


Production company: XYZ Films

Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Emayatzy Corinealdi, John Carroll Lynch, Lindsay Burdge

Director: Karyn Kusama

Screenwriters: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi

Producers: Martha Griffin, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, Nick Spicer

Executive producers: Nate Bolotin, Dan Cogan, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Wendy Ettinger, Mynette Louie, Anthony Mancilla, Julie Parker Benello, Aubin Paul

Director of photography: Bobby Shore

Production designer: Almitra Corey

Costume designer: Alysia Raycraft

Editor: Plummy Tucker

Music: Theodore Shapiro

Casting directors: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent

No rating, 100 minutes