Finally! A Dinner Party Worth Going To…

I’m reaching that age now where most of my social invites involving party buses and poppin’ overpriced bottles in club VIP areas are less frequent and being steadily replaced by quaint, 30-something dinner parties.  You know the ones: you bring a bottle of wine (or – if you’re bereft of any shame whatsoever – a box of it); you sit around for a few hours snacking on crackers topped with expensive cheeses you’ve never heard of; lastly, you eat a lavish meal prepared by your gracious host.  That part can go one of two ways – either a truly fantastic meal worthy of all the hubbub or the hosts are experimenting with some new, obnoxious diet they feel compelled to force on everyone else and an In-N-Out visit is required during the drive home.   

In Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, the night starts out fairly normal for Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) – aside from a (literal) bump in the road – while en route to a dinner party hosted by Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her new hubby, David (Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman).  It’s been two years since Will has had any contact with Eden in the aftermath of their marriage’s tumultuous end following a tragedy.  Will and Kira arrive to see his old circle of friends there – mostly people he also hasn’t seen over the past couple of years, despite clearly being close to at one point.  

Michiel Huisman, John Carroll Lynch, Tammy Blanchard, in 'The Invitation' Image: Drafthouse Films

Michiel Huisman, John Carroll Lynch, Tammy Blanchard, in ‘The Invitation’ Image: Drafthouse Films

At first, there are all the staples of a typical LA dinner party – the notably expensive wine is flowing, the picture-perfect diverse crowd casually mingles before the convos turn slightly sexual and everyone has trite excuses for why so much time has passed since they last saw each other.  But even from the start, things feel a bit off.  Will is wary of Eden’s newly-embraced, ethereal demeanor, David’s seemingly clandestine behavior and the eccentricities of two of the group newbies, Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch).  As the night carries on, we are forced to wonder if Will’s suspicions about his hosts and their new friends are warranted or if he is losing his grasp on reality after returning to a former home that harbors so many painful memories.  

This is a tale that deals largely with an untrustworthy protagonist in Will.  As the story progresses, the audience becomes cognizant that we are either dealing with a misunderstood John Lithgow ranting about a monster on the wing of the plane or it could be John Nash in the first half of A Beautiful Mind; we’re constantly asking questions along the way.  A concise script penned by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi combined with Kusama’s brilliant direction offer a supreme sense of restraint with this material.  The reveals are never enough to dispel our curiosities, but there are also sufficient red herrings to keep riding the waves of suspicion about Eden and David’s gathering (not to mention the other guests).  

Gradually, all of the insecurities, concerns and doubts Will feels begins to seep into our own consciousness, injecting us with a nervous, unsettling feeling about everything that occurs.  If you’re the type of viewer who couldn’t handle the slow, methodical tension buildup in movies like Inglourious Basterds or television shows like Breaking Bad, this will probably be some of the most excruciating 100 minutes of your life.  But if you LOVE those kinds of painstaking narrative devices, The Invitation will be a feast for your delightfully warped sense of enjoyment.

The moody, dark music from composer Theodore Shapiro is also highly effective and reminiscent of Ryan David Leack’s work in another low-key creeper, Mike Flanagan’s Absentia.  The sound design as a whole is amazing – it goes from zero to redline a few times, creating some truly frightening, well-earned jump scares.  Going back to films like It Follows and Drive, phenomenal audio design has been very prominent in recent horror/thriller indies.  Here, anytime we feel at ease, Shapiro’s haunting score reminds us even during feel-good moments that not everything we’re seeing might be quite right.

However, if it’s one thing that truly separates The Invitation from similar contemporary genre fare, it is the collective work of this remarkable cast.  I was fortunate enough to attend a screening followed by a Q and A with Karyn Kusama so I was able to gain further insight into perhaps why this large ensemble – mostly confined to one primary location – works so well (all the more impressive when you factor in that the film was shot in only 20 days).  Opting to focus less on the technical details, the rehearsal process consisted of repeatedly pairing up the dozen actors and talking about each of their respective relationships so they all had a specific shared history with one another.  

Logan Marshall-Green, in 'The Invitation' Image: Drafthouse Films

Logan Marshall-Green, in ‘The Invitation’ Image: Drafthouse Films

The payoff is tremendous; this is an actor’s movie that can also find solid footing with audiences as the interconnectivity feels very genuine – nothing forced or left to ambiguity.  There’s a sincere familial sense of community and bonding, which benefits the storyline overall by raising the stakes as to whether or not Will’s paranoia is justified and what is at jeopardy if he is right or wrong (consequently, the audience as well if we accept or reject believing in him).               

If you appreciate on-screen social awkwardness, pressure cooker-style tension, masterful shot selection along with textured, complex characters, The Invitation will undoubtedly be a fully-satisfying delicacy.  And unlike most of the mundane dinner parties you’ll attend this year, there will still be plenty to talk about after this one ends…if you can find the words.