I watched The Invitation alone in my apartment. I left the lights on, because I expected it to be scary and wasn’t too keen on having a heart attack in pitch black. As it turns out, the film wasn’t scary, at least not in the jumpy sense. The only jump scare, in fact, comes right as the fim begins, in a sequence that a TV producer would have called a cold open.
But The Invitation is more effective for its lack of outright horror. It gets at you in a much more insidious way. At one point while watching, I said out loud, “Well… this is upsetting.” I wasn’t talking to anyone (there was no one there to talk to), but at that moment it seemed like the only thing I could do. Someone needed to say something. If it wasn’t going to be the onscreen characters, it was going to be me. And, of course, that was just the beginning. So, sure, The Invitation is upsetting.
But, like, in a good way.
Director: Karyn Kusama
Release Date: April 8, 2016
The title of The Invitation does not, as you might expect early on, refer to the invitation that you see moments in: a party invitation to the house of Eden and David. Eden hasn’t seen her friends in two years, since the tragic death of her son, and Will’s. Will is our protagonist, and to some degree the only character that the audience can truly empathize with. (The reasons for that we’ll discuss in a little bit.)
The Invitation actually refers to a group (read: cult) that Eden and David joined while they were in Mexico, where apparently they spent much of those two missing years. We see bits and pieces of the cult, presented mostly through videos featuring the founder. We also get to experience it vicariously through the actions of the couple, David in particular. During one scene in particular, a series of confessions presented as a sort of “game,” a stranger to the group, played by John Carroll Lynch (whose presence in the film is rarely a good sign (plot-wise, at least; I think he’s a fine actor), starts talking about about a horrible thing he did. It was during that speech where I felt compelled to tell no one in particular that what I was watching was upsetting.
The Invitation is a lot of things, but there is one crucial thing it is not: surprising. It’s probably a spoiler to say you know exactly where this movie is going almost as soon as the film begins, but not really. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that telegraphs its “twist” so overtly from the word Go. As soon as Will and Kira enter the house, Will knows something is wrong, and you, the viewer, know something is wrong. Everything about it is wrong. It’s wrong in exactly the way that these kinds of things are always wrong. And, of course, Will is the only one who notices it. And you wonder why he’s the only one who notices. He wonders (aloud) why he’s the only one who notices, and I couldn’t help but think about the Cinema Sin’s narrator saying, “Will would be excellent at Cinema Sins.” It’s a little hard to swallow that they would all continue just going along with it. Only one person decides to leave, after that same monologue that I mentioned before.
But the lack of surprise isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Told well, even the most generic story can still be exciting, and I think that is absolutely the case here. No, you won’t be wondering what’s behind the next door, but you will be excited to get there. The sense of unease is pervasive, and every frame drips with dread. This is a very pretty movie, with spectacular lighting in particular but camerawork in general. A few days ago, I watched a movie shot a while back, on 35mm film. A helicopter shot of Los Angeles showed a dark city, a patchwork of lights but ultimately a very dim place. In the background of The Invitation’s gorgeous location, you see the lights of that same city. But where films of old are dark, modern films are bright. The city shines, and it grounds you in a sort of reality. You know where this is happening, give or take. This isn’t some remote cabin in the woods. This is a house on a hill overlooking one of the most famous cities in the world.
The Invitation is being sold as a psychological thriller, and that’s truest if you see the film less as an objective view of the situation and more as Will’s interpretation of it. This is an interesting thought to consider, because it may very well mean that my irritation with the general group’s inability to see just how wrong everything was is less a function of the narrative than of the presentation. Of course, the friends can’t hear the unsettling music or the off-putting camerawork. The movie wants me to know that something’s up, because Will knows that something is up. We’re in his head, and his head is in a very different place than his compatriot’s.
Which is what makes it all the more fascinating that he’s ultimately correct. Oftentimes, intensely psychological films will reveal that the protagonist is the crazy one, that you’ve been lulled into this false belief that your character is reliable. Even if you know that there’s something a little off about them, you convince yourself that they’re fundamentally in the right. And then, when the final confrontation comes, you realize that no, that’s not true at all. And thinking about it through that lens, perhaps The Invitation is a little less typical than I initially gave it credit for.
But then again, maybe it’s not.
The reality is that this question of how it fits into genre canon doesn’t really affect its very fundamental successes. This is a movie that gets its hooks into you right from the get-go, and you’re anxious to see where it goes. You’re anxious because you’re excited, but also because you know that things cannot possibly end well. You’re anxious for the characters, even if you don’t necessarily care about them the way you care about Will. I didn’t feel like the other characters were neglected so much as they didn’t matter. Focusing on them, telling their stories more deeply, wouldn’t have really benefited the story that The Invitation tells, but that doesn’t mean the holes in the characterizations don’t show. You get glimpses of these characters, but there are many more questions than answers.
The final moments of the film bears that out, that there’s a whole world of stories out there that we’re not seeing. It’s just like the reminders in the back of shots that LA is out there, seemingly just a stone’s throw away. And though that image itself feels a little bit like it’s sacrificing narrative logic for the sake a really cool shot (and it is a really cool shot), the implication of it is one worth thinking about. Stories don’t happen in isolation, even in the most isolating environments.
And as I think back on the film, I want to stop picking it apart, realizing that certain moments didn’t work quite as well as I thought they did at the time. Because whatever negative things I might have to say, The Invitation is an exceedingly well-crafted film, and I enjoyed damn near every minute.