On their surface, the events of The Invitation (2015) unfold in an unremarkable, even mundane, fashion. A couple hosts a dinner party in a modern, upscale home somewhere in California (where screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi never state) after secluding themselves for over two years. One of the guests (Will, played by Logan Marshall-Green) used to be married to Eden (Tammy Blanchard), one of the hosts, so we think we understand his discomfort in attending. Only as the movie progresses do we learn more: their son Ty was killed in an accident, causing their marriage to fall apart. Eden now lives with David (Michiel Housman), whom she met in a grief support group. Before Will and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) arrive at Will’s and Eden’s former home, however, Will strikes a coyote with his car. The animal survives but is mortally wounded, leaving little choice but to kill it out of mercy. The scene allows director Karyn Kusama to suffuse the movie with the menace and dread undercutting the gathering.
Will and Kira arrive, as do others. David and Eden introduce Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), a woman they met while in Mexico and who stays with them. Her wide eyes and sudden movements suggest past trauma. More friends show up, including Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), whom the guests have never met. They play games, and David and Eden tell everyone about a group to which they, Sadie, and Pruitt belong. Called “The Invitation,” it works through grief using a New Age–style spiritual philosophy. The friends joke that the couple has joined a cult, and some grow uneasy when David and Eden play a video of the Invitation’s leader comforting a dying woman. Ultimately, they laugh it off.
Will does not. He notices that David keeps the front door locked. When he steps outside for firewood he spies Eden through her bedroom window, hiding a pill bottle. He expresses his unease, especially when Pruitt accompanies one of the guests back to her car. David confronts Will, claiming that he is suspicious. As dinner is served, Will’a memories of Ty and Eden add to his growing paranoia.
As with most strong thrillers, The Invitation works by keeping the viewer off balance; I kept thinking of Dennis Etchison’s suburban nightmares throughout, the sense that this normal gathering is not at all normal. Kusama offers visual cues of what will unfold but also keeps David’s and Eden’s explanations logical enough that we wonder if Will’s grief is causing him to misread events. In addition, Kusama also keeps the movie’s focus almost exclusively on Will, which only adds to the movie’s air of danger. Therefore, though the movie demands a good ensemble cast (and has one), the weight of the picture rests on Marshall-Green’s shoulders, requiring detachment that masks his powerful loss. Blanchard and Huisman, too, must walk a delicate dramatic tightrope; their tender, understanding smiles obfuscate their true intentions, and they both pull it off with remarkable ease. Yes, what could have been a meditation on how people change in the face of grief instead opts instead to be an efficient, nail-biting exercise in suspense, but it does so with great skill.
Derek Austin Johnson has lived most of his life in the Lone Star State. A member of the Turkey City Writer's Workshop, his work has appeared in The Horror Zine, Tell-Tale Press, Skull Fragments: A Skelos Sampler, Rick Klaw's Rayguns Over Texas!, Nova Express, Moving Pictures, Her Majesty's Secret Servant, and Revolution SF. His film column "Watching the Future" appeared each month at Hugo Award-winning SF Signal.
He lives in Central Texas.