There is something about the past that Karyn Kusama captures so strikingly that Christopher Nolan could’ve have used as a pointer had Interstellar (2014) not preceded The Invitation (2015). Now that that grabbed your attention, allow me to rephrase the statement. There is something about using space to serve as a repository for memories that Karyn Kusama resorts to as recurring motif to sustain the tension, and provide exposition even. And so effective is its use as the dreamlike state for Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) wandering mind, upon returning to familiar surroundings, in accentuating [his] unease and prolonging suspense. The simple act of entering a room and thus evoking recollections of what unfolded within is utilized liberally to capture the ephemera of life’s accumulated memories. It is when events are traumatic, their aftermath spooling out through melancholy rather than anger or resentment, that reveries are allowed to be a vehicle for a study on grief in The Invitation.
There’s also something foul and foreboding about the atmosphere Kusama builds towards, akin to what Ari Aster later perfected as signature. Following a brief preamble, en route to ex-wife Eden’s (Tammy Blanchard) for a reunion dinner, Will runs over a coyote. This engagement follows a hiatus for the former couple and their group of mutual friends following her two-year disappearing act in Mexico after their divorce. It is at their old home in Hollywood Hills, with each, now, settled with a new partner—Will with Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi); Eden with David (Michiel Huisman). Among other social perils, such a reacquaintance could abound with old flames rekindled, or old wounds re-opened. Kira, though startled by the accident, is probably unsurprised; in one glimpse, Will reveals all the markings of a broken man. Pensive, distant and detached. He’s a shell of a man as there’s no demonstration of a jovial or tender exchange between the two. Still, he does show the quick thinking and compassion to promptly euthanize the animal.
Upon arrival, something seems off. The gatherers seemingly pick up where they left off, conveniently avoiding the immediate elephant in the room that instigated their estrangement. And Will’s uneasiness is exacerbated to no end. Aloof yet on guard. Adjacent yet besides himself with torment, his forced smiles and curt reassurances doing little to dissuade others from incessant concern and apologetic gestures. It is a palpable dread born from a multitude of sources, mainly, that a bunch of grown-ups walking on egg shells around grown-up problems while gorging on carnal delights. Eden, of all people, ought to know better. Sultry, bridal and almost regal, she is the sole person dressed up for an impromptu shindig no one expected. But she is glassy-eyed (clearly whacked out on something), flirtatious and touchy-feely while making a point of moving past her traumas at every opportunity. It all reeks of a forced charade. Moreover, the interiors are dimly lit, and as the red drapes accentuate the walls, the orange hues cast a ceremonious light. One senses that an announcement will eventually reveal the pretense of this occasion. The house’s layout is reversed; with the bedrooms and kitchen downstairs and an upper dining room overlooking the space below.
The stage is therefore set perfectly, and as the principal couple arrive, it is a full house, with the magic hour firmly yielding to the night’s shroud, allowing whatever festivities in the works an entire evening ahead to unfold in. And as glassfuls of the rarest wine list are offered copiously, what’s the worst that could transpire? A proposition ending in a wife-swapping orgy? The offense of said overture? All is fine among friends and familiar company, meaning the ice will break even if a few new faces are in the crowd. The tacit front prompts Will to excuse himself for a tour around the house where the aforementioned triggers teleport him down memory lane. He asks to have a look in their son’s bedroom, who may well be away with a sitter given this is a grown-up crowd. It is obvious the separation never went through proper resolution, with no apparent token of reconciliation on the horizon yet again. The exposition thus far is such that events and conversations flow organically and in sequential fashion.
Things get suspicious, with the added surrealism from the first scene being built upon methodically. Will spots a naked woman standing in a doorway down the hall. Another stranger, also a friend of Eden and David’s, joins the party. There is no cell signal, David keeps locking the front door, and the windows have been barred since Will moved out. If any of the above feels amiss, Will must be too crazy or too keen for his own good to be the only attendee taking note. And Kusama keeps us at arm’s length as to Will’s reliability as narrator. Moreover, if any of this sounds familiar, it is thanks to the similarly surreal mumble-core sci-fi Coherence released just a couple of years prior. The similarities end here as the two films diverge from there, this one taking a dark turn when Eden, joined by David, drops the first of several bombshells. Eden’s way of coping is aided with the morbid footage of volunteers on their deathbeds embracing their imminent exit from this world for the camera. And thus the mystery of Will and Eden’s separation comes to the light. Alongside the death-stricken is a man providing spiritual guidance for the dying, and a play-by-play for the onlooker.
This is the moment Kusama announces her intentions with the film, and the abrupt change in tone, right around its third-act and coinciding with its third and final climax, is perhaps too jarring for some to prevent a shrug or two. With the lockdown firmly a distant memory today, the sheer entrapment and immediate enclosure of a plot unfolding in essentially two rooms calls to mind the hypnotic suspension in time from that period. The Invitation is a moody picture, with a palette skewing mostly warm, and cool unsaturated colors during its sparse flashbacks. What’s more, is the use of color to depict not so much happier times as the relative safety of the familiar. The depictions of memories are shown in blue tints or through hazy out of focus compositions. What is constant and uniform throughout is the unyielding sense of dread. And Kusama fulfills in that regard. The anticipation of something harrowing happening, possibly an innocuous faux pas of the worst kind (this is LA, after all), is palpable. And that happens. But accusations of cultist behavior? A cultist ritual in the making? That’s LA, too.