I am fascinated by cults. Not in an “I can see the appeal” kind of way, but in a weird, “I have about a million questions” kind of way. I’m curious about the power of persuasion and the level of manipulation and control being exerted in an environment like that, how people and why people give themselves over to that influence, and there is a level of morbid curiosity about the unsettling nature of it all that seems to lurk just below the surface. There have been quite a few well-made indie films over the last few years that deal with cults and people escaping them, infiltrating them, or documenting them (Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Sound Of My Voice, and even The Sacrament come to mind). The latest is The Invitation, a film currently out in limited release and on various VOD platforms (I watched it on Amazon). It’s an intimately small thriller that builds the tension and keeps you on your toes.
The story is set in the Los Angeles hills as a group of friends reconnects at a dinner party. Will (Logan Marshall-Green, aka, Bargain Bin Tom Hardy) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) have been invited by Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her new husband David (Michael Huisman). The marriage between Will and Eden fell apart after their son died in a freak accident. Will picked up the pieces of his life as best he could, while Eden found David at a support group and they disappeared for two years to Mexico. At the party are all of their group of friends who both Will and Eden have lost touch with, and so the party is about bringing everyone together again. Everyone is warm and welcoming as it is just like old times in many ways for them, but there are certain things the raise red flags in Will’s head. He soon begins to suspect that Eden and David, and two friends of their who have joined the party, might have ulterior, sinister motives for bringing everyone together, but it is possible that it is all in Will’s head.
The film maintains a sense of tension and unease all the way into the third act. Director Karyn Kusama never tips her hand one way or the other as to what is going on. The film certainly makes you suspicious of whether there is something to going on with Eden, David and their friends, played by Lindsay Burdge and John Carroll Lynch, one of the creepiest “that guy” actors. There are small things, some subtle and some not so subtle that raise red flags in Will’s mind and in our mind, but they are shrugged off and explained away by Eden and David. When David comes out and says exactly what they group is like that they found in Mexico and how it helped them process their grief and shows them essentially a recruitment video featuring the founder of their movement (played by Toby Huss), the question lingers whether this like Scientology, EST, or something worse.
However, while Will’s perspective on things is the one shared by the film, there are hints visually and in the script that Will may be unreliable when it comes to his assessment of the situation, especially as he is walking back into the house he used to call home and is having occasional flashbacks to moments he shared in the house with his son and ex-wife. By not revealing its hand too early and never giving us a straight answer until late in the film, Kusama allows the film’s tension to grow and grow as more and more red flags pop up, but the uncertainty remains as Will struggles with his emotions too.
The actors do a good job of balancing the range of feelings involved in the dinner party. There is the general familiarity of old friends reuniting, but also a sense of awkwardness from being separated for so long, and an uneasiness on Will’s part on mixing back into the group. Logan Marshall-Green, the poor man’s Tom Hardy, plays Will in a very subdued and withdrawn way for the most part. I also thought his character was refreshing in how he was grounded and real. At one point, a woman other than his girlfriend throws herself at him, and in a lesser movie, he probably would have given into that temptation. I thought the restraint on the part of the writers and director to not go down that path and unnecessarily heap another layer onto the circumstances of film was commendable.
Oddly enough, of all of the films that could possibly come to mind for comparison when watching this, the one that popped into my head was Pixar’s Inside Out. That film dealt with the emotional struggles that people have, particularly with how important it is to embrace all of your emotions and not suppress sadness. Part of being a healthy, fully-functional human being is learning that all of those emotions are necessary on some level, not just in an individual way but also in how they can connect us to people around us. Here, this film deal with grief and tragedy. The tragedy of losing a son marks Will and Eden and both react differently and it sends them in opposite directions. Their reactions to their grief impact not only them, but their relationships to the people around them and shows two potential paths forward, ignoring it or figuring out how to live with it.
The Invitation was a film I had heard about last year and was excited to see. It lived up to the expectations I had for it. It is a slow-burn thriller that keeps you on your toes and makes you keep your guard up, unsure who to believe when it comes to what is going on at this dinner party. It’s subtle and confined and hits a lot of great notes as a thriller. It’s currently available for VOD on Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars