Monday, January 16, 2017

RSVP Affirmatively

Karyn Kusama is a filmmaker I will always root for. The studio interference riddled Aeon Flux aisde, her filmography (the brilliant real and insightful Girlfight and the woefully mismarketed clever bite of Jennifer's Body) demonstrates that she has a fantastically smart cinematic voice that should be heard more. This is generally reinforced when you read interviews where she discusses both her work and the pretty crappy way the Hollywood has treated her in comparison to her male peers.

Hence, there was no question that I was not going to give her latest, the well-received thriller The Invitation, a go, especially when it landed on Netflix Instant. I had previously avoided reading anything about it because other viewers had led me to believe it was an easily spoiled twisty tale. While it's not quite the mind flip I wax expecting, please see that I'm proceeding cautiously in my review, giving only the basic roundup before delving into full spoiler territory. Those who haven't seen the film should feel safe reading until the warning.

Quick Plot: Will and his new girlfriend Kira are reluctantly attending a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife Eden in her gorgeous, secluded LA home with her own new beau Daario N--

I mean, David. 

Eden and Will lost their young son to a terrible tragedy, and while Will is still constantly suffering from the memory, Eden seems to have dealt with it in a more zen (and obviously, creepy) manner. She and David explain this to Will, Kira, and a few other old friends by showing them a video introduction to their "support group", which Will (and the audience) immediately pinpoints as a cult. Is it the kind of murder-heavy/wallet-gouging cult we tend to think of when we hear the very word, or just a peaceful, open-minded way of living and learning to forgive yourself?

The Invitation is a tricky film to discuss, because part of its power comes from the audience not quite knowing what to expect, who to trust, or even what kind of movie you're actually watching. On that note, I'll give a hearty recommendation right here, and delve into the burning intensity of SPOILER territory below.

From the opening moment where Will hits a roving coyote with his car, there's a quiet sense of dread simmering underneath the surface of The Invitation. The beauty of the film lies, in part, in how Kusama makes us question whether it's something truly dangerous or just the awkward nerves that come standard with these kinds of social gatherings. 

It's an incredibly tense mood that helps to keep the audience on constant edge. The idea of Will being a possible unreliable narrator certainly doesn't hurt, and as much as I was mostly convinced that Eden and her crew were up to something sinister, I also felt myself let out a strained sigh when it truly seemed as if Will was just misinterpreting social cues. Naturally, this makes the actual reveal that much more effective.

I loved The Invitation, and not just because of my weird obsession with any cult-based horror. Kusama's staging could have satisfied me even if it turned out that Eden and David WERE just overly friendly hippie party hosts and that Will was reading far too much into everything. The tension Kusama creates is something very skilled and incredibly intense. Perhaps more importantly, there's subtext and depth underneath it. This isn't just a horror movie about trying to dodge your cyanide-and-knife-wielding-friends. It's also a meditation on dealing with grief and  fascinating probe into the nightmare of socializing.

It's a good one.

High Points
Much should be said for the screenplay (by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi) and Kusama's decisions to not force introductions and explanations, bot of the characters' relationships to one another and the actual big picture reveal of sorts at the end. The audience is never fumbling to figure out who's who because the script and direction guides you well enough along that you can figure it out as if you were just another guest at the party

Low Points
Much like I said about American Mary, I could have taken another hour of this film (especially with its fairly brief 100 minute run time). If that doesn't speak highly about a movie, what does?

Lessons Learned
As any rule of horror cinema goes, the cooler the house, the bloodier the party

If your ex-wife's new boyfriend seems way too comfortable with you, you should indeed be suspicious and expecting him to attempt to murder you

Never be the first to toast. Ever.

While I enjoyed watching The Invitation, this was one of those films that improved in my estimation the more I thought about it after the fact. From the way the film plays with who to trust to the skillful way it establishes the setting's geography, this is an incredibly well-crafted movie well worth a lights-out phone-away watch. Dig it. 


  1. Yeah, I really liked this one.
    I was never fully tricked... but I wasn't entirely confident I knew where it was heading either.
    One thing I particularly liked was how the plan played out... eschewing the usual omniscient psychos of lesser movies for something more plausible.
    Now I need to go watch Jennifer's Body, which I'll admit I'd avoided... but if it's the same director then that's enough of a notch in its favor to warrant a watch.

    1. Jennifer's Body came out with so much baggage because Megan Fox had such a particular reputation. But once you get into its rhythm, I think it's clear that it's REALLY good. Fox is actually cast perfectly, and the movie is genuinely funny. Also, if you haven't seen Girlfight, PLEASE give it a go. It's something truly special, and I never hear it discussed enough.

      I knew based on the fact that The Invitation was considered a horror film that stuff WOULD happen, but the film just kept tricking me. When I think of the toast and how perfectly manipulated I was, I realize that this was so damn well-made.

  2. I just watched this last night and was blown away. Can we talk for a second about the terrifying presence of John Caroll Lynch? It seemed like every frame he was somewhere looming in the background. There was a thick 'manson family at Sharon Tate's party' vibe going on. Truly brilliant stuff. And good call on the ease of exposition. As a sometimes screenwriter, I am always watching to see how this kind of thing is pulled off with such grace. No one actually says out loud that the son had died for almost a half an hour, I think. But we know as soon as he walks through the door of the house almost everything. I am curious, though. It made perfect sense to me when the credits rolled that it was directed by a woman. Even though our protagonist is a male, I felt like the social anxiety cues were much more nuanced and built on the ceremony of being a good guest. Things that I feel like maybe a male perspective would have tripped up on a little. Don't get me wrong, Polanski was the king of shivery social anxiety, but he always seemed to get a little cartoonish, while The Invitation seemed able to reset itself back to the 'now don't be rude' speed, which made it all the more cringe inducing. Really, really good stuff. Great review!

    1. IT'S SO GOOD! John Caroll Lynch has such an amazing presence, and I love that Kusama understood exactly how to use that. And I totally agree that she nails the "this might be messed up, but I don't know if I should be rude and call it out"-ness of the situation. It's an absolute masterclass in subtlety, and definitely a great film to take writing cues from!