A chilling and astute horror picture, The Invitation is directed by Karyn Kusama from a screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. There’s a lot to mull over in this 2015 film and Kusama keeps the suspense building while laying the philosophical footing for a gut punch.
It’s tempting to simplify The Invitation and to catalogue it as a “dinner party from hell,” but that point of view ignores essential context – much like a naïve reading of The Purge as a measly “home invasion thriller” ignores a wealth of philosophical and sociological connotations.
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are on their way to a dinner party at the home of his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). Their home is in Will’s rather ritzy former home.
There is a dark underpinning to the dinner, as Eden and Will lost their son some years ago and are still coping. The party has its share of strain, but things reach a fever pitch when David shows a video about a group he and Eden joined. The group sounds fairly cult-like to some in attendance and the fun begins when more surprises are exhumed.
The group, known as the Invitation, is comprised of people who’ve had to overcome grief or otherwise “negative” emotions in order to move forward. Kusama’s movie examines this philosophy with a sharp eye, probing the all-too-common outlook of barring any and all potentially tough feelings for the façade of happiness on the other side of darkness.
This approach, typified in so much pop psychology, advocates not only an ostracism of undesirable emotions but an espousal of nothing but positive ones. This leads to a game of “I want” among the party guests, where people are encouraged to get what they want irrespective of consequence.
As The Invitation reveals, it is tempting to turn to repudiation and positive psychology to overcome suffering. And Eden and Will have had more than their share of sorrow. Another party guest, the furtive Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), faces misery of another kind. He abandons his guilt to the Invitation, a process that some may consider a touch on the sociopathic side.
But for those who consider things like remorse and grief as hindrances, there may be some appeal in the Invitation’s viewpoint. That’s what reinforces the horror. The motivation of the characters to behave as they do in the third act is inherent in the reality-denying manoeuvres that drive so many through each day.
It’s interesting that Kusama, especially through what is really an alarming final shot, also plays with a socioeconomic angle. Here, it is the affluent that wage this war on “negativity.” They invite their friends. They drink expensive wine, eat expensive food, talk about expensive things, take what they want.
Our access point is Will, who has gone through all the grief that Eden has but hasn’t run from his pain. He doesn’t know what to do with it and that’s fine. He navigates the evening with suspicion and at one point it appears he makes a critical error in judgement. This sets up further unrest and sublimely underlines the tension.
There’s a lot to unpack in The Invitation and Kusama’s movie holds a lot of power. It is a visceral experience to an extent, but it is mostly a philosophical and psychological piece with a horrific chaser. Those who dismiss it as mere dinner theatre miss the beating heart at the centre of it all.