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Tuesday, May 17, 2016


More than two years ago, a group of friends was shattered when one couple, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard), watched their child die from an accident at a birthday party. Will and Eden split up, each lost to grief in their own way. Eden met a man named David at her grief counseling sessions, and the two ran away together to Mexico; Will just kept muddling through his day-to-day life. But now Eden and David (Michiel Huisman) are back, and they've invited all their former friends to a dinner party in their villa in the hills near Los Angeles. Even Will and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are invited. But Will is uncomfortable being in his old home, where his son died, and that discomfort only magnifies as the night gets more and more personal and the party begins to turn dark.

If Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin's electric 2011 film, used the tropes and expectations of horror filmmaking to craft a thriller about paranoia, Kusama uses a different set of horror tropes to explore the extremes of grief. But The Invitation is not, strictly speaking, a horror film, at least not by traditional body-count-and-breasts definition that seems to define the genre to many. Like Anti-Christ, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and other profoundly personal dramas, it's just so intense that it feels like a horror film. The lingering dread that suffuses the background of the movie makes every emotional outburst land like a slasher's machete.

Karyn Kusama (Jennifer's Body) is a director I have liked for some time who I felt never gets enough credit. Her work here should change that permanently. The Invitation is a difficult film, in part because it is two separate films. As we learn about Will, Kira, Eden, and the rest of the group, Kusama plays things as a darkly funny indie drama. The group play games, gossip, catch up, all while dancing around the tense-way-beyond-reason emotional core between Will and Eden. But slowly, Will's fear and paranoia amp up, flashes back to his tragic past in this house keeping us on edge even as it pushes him over. But The Invitation knows how to undercut its own feverish dread well; few movies I've seen are even half so effective with at teasing out the reality of the danger in a horror movie.

Because the film is fundamentally about a series of broken relationships, the cast is vital to selling the movie's delicate tone. The Invitation is full of indie-friendly faces, but unlike a lot of modern dramedies, Kusama's film is rigorously controlled. Eden's house looks open, with few closed doors and a lot of open air, but Kusama films close up on the actor's faces and cuts off our visuals to other rooms, making the place feel claustrophobic as hell. And those faces were well-chosen. Logan Marshall-Green looks like a broken man through much of the film, while Tammy Blanchard makes her flightiness feel like a retreat from reality rather than a quirky character trait. Perhaps my favorite bits of casting is John Carroll Lynch as Pruitt, who looks like a gentle giant but holds a deep weight inside. Much of the rest of the cast, like Michelle Krusiec and Jordi Vilasuso, do solid work as a group of friends desperately trying to keep things light and just get through the evening with their relationships intact.

Like the phenomenal The Witch and Green Room, The Invitation is a moody, atmospheric movie more interested in exploring its characters and situations fully than goosing you with cheap jump scares. It's a smart, mean emotional thriller that makes its home at the corner of grief and hopelessness, and the scariest thing about the movie is how plausible the intense emotions that drive these characters feel. In the film's opening scene, two characters accidentally hit a coyote with their car and, unwilling to let it suffer, are forced to bludgeon it to death. It's a mercy, but it's an emotionally fraught one that leaves the survivors shaken and drained. It's the perfect moment to sum up what you're about to see. 

The Invitation is out now in theaters in limited release, and is available On Demand from services like Amazon Instant or Google Play. Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi and directed by Karyn Kusama, The Invitation stars Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, and Michiel Huisman.
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