Two years after the untimely passing of Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) son, he and his friends receive an invitation into the home of Eden, Will’s now estranged ex-wife (played by Tammy Blanchard) to reconnect. When they arrive, Eden’s new partner David (Michael Huisman), friends Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) aren’t quite right. Are the haunting memories of his former life messing with Will’s judgement or is something more menacing afoot.
Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is a disturbing psychological thriller that will whip you into a state of paranoia with calculating manipulation of perspective. Protagonist Will, played by L.A’s answer to Tom Hardy (or as I’ll always fondly remember him – Ryan’s brother from The O.C) Marshall-Green must contend with the ghosts of his past clouding his ability to cope with the fact that his ex-wife Eden has shed her sorrow like a discarded overcoat, but now appears to be on a strange recruitment drive.
Kusama finds the raw darkness of grief and there’s a maelstrom of memory haunting the walls of the setting for the characters, especially Will. In The Invitation, civility is its own perversion. The supporting cast Gina (Michelle Krusiec), Tommy (Mike Doyle), Miguel (Jordi Vilasuso) and Ben (Jay Larson) are so desperate to keep things cordial that it only enhances the strange feeling of the gathering; they may as well have had their smiles surgically stretched over their faces (see Lenny from The Simpsons post face-lift). Kusama contains the point of view to everything that Will is experiencing; which is essential to the imbalance she’s attempting to create. Will’s mind is awash with the sensory triggers back to his peak melancholia associated with the loss of his son. The tension of the situation is then driven by the extremity of possibility. It’s either an inane and depressing reunion that’s strangling the participants with civility and trivial organised ‘fun’ at a lame corporate team building exercise; or a cult’s dinner party venus fly trap. Are we just experiencing Will’s megalomania? Kusama using a terrific score from Theodore Sharpie sounds the alarm in sharp flurries of strings that conduct the hairs on the back of your neck into a standing position.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master so beautifully created the post war conditions of directionlessness due to contentment that formed the petri dish for neo-religious groups and “cults” to spawn. The Invitation encapsulates the 2016 hyper post-Google awareness of the void of existence to that next level. The L.A Hills are the essential breeding ground for Kusama and her players to explore this detachment. Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi use the symptomatic medicated culture of physical and emotional pain relief of contemporary America, which hits its nexus in L.A, as the bedrock of The Invitation. You’re surrounded by the world’s most beautiful and famous people working in the most temperamental industry and you’re in technological and geographical isolation. Joel Edgerton, director of the similarly disturbing The Gift, discussed that some of his lauded directorial debut’s menace was inspired by the fact that some of L.A’s most heinous crimes happened right where the city felt its safest; Manson’s legacy continues to haunt the hills. Kusama portrays the gated homes of L.A hiding in the dark crevasses of the hills surrounding the luminous waves of the sprawling metropolis. It’s almost like those families who have giant electricity transformers or cell phone towers next to their homes and start to discover that they’re getting cancer. They’re not immune, if anything that drone of lights and activity makes them pale into an abyss of despair when they’re already faced with life-changing grief-related events.
Firstly, Marshall-Green’s performance is distracting because he looks so much like Tom Hardy guised by the beard and long hair that you’ll repeatedly double take. The primary difference between the performers is that Hardy is able to make his thoughts and feelings stream over his eyes like the words on the Star Wars crawl; Marshall-Green on the other hand has a dead-eyed quality. His innards feel as cold as the vacuum of space. Pairing that with a restrained stillness, trying to soak every part of the proceedings. Blanchard’s Eden is betrayed by her eyes. The outward facade is together but there’s a vulnerability in her eyes that alters the meaning of everything she’s trying to convey.
Huisman plays David with a punchable charm. You can smell crazy on Sadie (Burdge) from a mile away and she’s playing that sex crazed hippy character you’d require to screw people over the line, so to speak. Carroll Lynch plays Pruitt and unfortunately he’s not really able to bury the lead with his character’s trajectory here. Instead of keeping the audience guessing, giving a little bit of sweetness a la Norm from Fargo (“I’ll make you some eggs Margie”) he feels like he limped right out of Zodiac.
Violence is particularly affective in the hands of Kusama. There’s finality, ugliness and authenticity in watching someone wither in the wake of suffering grave injuries or even screaming the debilitating screams of affliction.
At its most inane, you’re watching The Invitation nodding to yourself as you’re thinking; “Man, if you were trying to convince me to join your cult a roast dinner and a spectacular bottle of red wine may just get me there.” Time stands still when you’re trying to fathom what it would take to continue living life faced with the death of a child; and further what poisonous leeches slither out from the muck you’re crawling through to feed on your essence.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Karyn Kusama
Written by: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Logan Marshall-Green: Will
Michelle Krusiec: Gina
Mike Doyle: Tommy
Jordi Vilasuso: Miguel
Jay Larson: Ben
Emayatzy Corinealdi: Kira
Tammy Blanchard: Eden
Michael Huisman: David
Lindsay Burdge: Sadie
John Carroll Lynch: Pruitt
Karl Yune: Choi