Often, the best thing you can say about a horror film is that it lingered, refusing to leave your brain after you saw it, maybe popping up in the background of your vision as you’re out at night, perhaps framing your dreams for the next little while. Even bad horror can provide an immediate visceral thrill, but the best horror works get their hooks into you. I can think of few modern horror films that exemplify this as much as The Invitation, a devastating new thriller from Girlfight director Karyn Kusama that utilizes questioning anxiety as its villain more than any specific human or monster. Tightly plotted and even more tightly framed, The Invitation gets exceptional tension out of its minimalist narrative and small cast and forces you to think about the way you trust and doubt friends and loved ones, the subtle signs you must constantly the question the veracity of in any interaction and how much more horrific that can get if you fear lives are on the line. It’s such a potent work that when I caught it at SXSW last year, my girlfriend at the time woke up in the middle of the night after we had seen it, crying and fearful because it had wormed its way into her dreams.
The Invitation begins with a scene that initially seems frivolous but ultimately foreshadows quite a bit, as Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) hit a coyote on their way to a dinner party and are forced to put it out of its misery before continuing on their way. The incident puts a dark mood over a trip that already has Will on edge. Rather than a simple dinner party with a small group of friends, Will and Kira have been invited to a gathering orchestrated by Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman), who disappeared from the face of the earth for two years and have just now resurfaced. Worse, the dinner party is at Will and Eden’s old home, where they lost their son in a tragic accident.
Kusama boldly focuses her film on prolonged grief, emphasizing the intense anxiety it causes in Will through abrasive sound design and intentionally awkward performances from the cast. The film is basically seen through Will’s eyes, which results in an unnervingly tense experience. Will is jarred by the seemingly inexplicable happiness of Eden and David and so distrusts them and their story of a spiritual epiphany during travels in Mexico, when they stayed with what Will believes is a cult. Because the viewer is connected to Will, every action that couple takes is suspect, and we focus on it, waiting for the guillotine to drop and unleash the tragedy we know is coming. The longer nothing happens, the more unhinged Will becomes, until his anxiety runs so high you start to wonder if he will be the perpetrator of the events about to unfold.
There are endless thinkpieces out their debating whether or not we should be as concerned about spoilers as we are, and how they interfere with good criticism. But because so much of The Invitation relies on uncertainty, this is an instance where it is worth keeping away from details as much as possible. That’s not to say that knowing what happens makes The Invitation any less remarkable of a work—seeing it once and then revisiting it allows you to pick up on more of Kusama’s tricks and hints but it also allows you to focus more on the artistry of her direction—but there is a real power to being so intimately connected to Will’s experience.
The confidence and patience Kusama shows in her direction of The Invitation are nothing short of masterful, making the film a spiritual successor to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games duo, though arguably more profound since Kusama presents an emotional frankness unlike anything in Haneke’s oeuvre. The Invitation will feel brutally true to anyone who has ever felt exceptionally alienated and anxious at a social gathering, as well as anyone who has been so traumatized by grief they aren’t sure how to connect with other people anymore. Other horror and thriller works may briefly keep you up at night or accelerate your heart rate but this is a truly traumatizing cinematic experience, one that lingers in your emotions and thoughts afterward, refusing to let go.
This review ran in an earlier form as part of our SXSW ’15 film coverage.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.