The drawing room mystery usually gathers a handful of acquaintances and strangers into a locked space, leaving them to determine who among them has villainous intentions. Typically, social codes and standard courtesy become plot points in their own right—the question being how long it’ll take for these tiny representative one-room societies to break themselves down into savagery. In The Invitation, it’s a long-gone couple who’ve invited their old friends to a dinner party, where the warning signs should be sounding off as loud as sirens. The man of the house prefers to keep all the doors locked. Everybody’s cell phone is far out of service. A mysterious seductress arrives like an apparition. The estranged hostess strikes one of her guests with the force of a street fighter. Then her husband plays a promotional video for the spiritual group the couple now belongs to. It culminates with the onscreen death of a seemingly healthy woman. That one’s enough to freak everyone out—the host even has to apologize for playing his infomercial-slash-snuff film—but it doesn’t freak them out so much that they feel the need to leave. One guest is even comfortable enough to respond by asking for some cocaine to help her straighten all those nerves out. There are chamber dramas where these implicit tests of courtesy play out like character traits. But here they’re like mental deficiencies.
Against any form of better judgment, this group of Hollywood Hills hipsters have nothing but patience for their clearly scheming friends. But for their partners, they can barely spare a breath. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) often turns his shoulder to new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), closing himself off before he even arrives at the dinner party. He’s preparing to re-meet his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard), the aforementioned hostess of this highly suspicious shindig. She and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) are all smiles, but they’re the only attending couple who can claim that. Gina (Michelle Krusiec) has been stood up by her own boyfriend, which sets Will’s suspicions aflare. Partners Tommy and Miguel (Mike Doyle and Jordi Vilasuso) snipe at each other in between stops at the drink bar. Eden’s somewhat-mysterious and clearly insidious new friend Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) tells a story, with total sincerity, about the time he accidentally murdered his first wife. And the one person who does dare to leave early is immediately ridiculed as a sexual nonstarter. This whole motif of stricken relationships gets its purest exemplar from one of the more trustworthy dinner guests. Will’s longtime friend Ben (Jay Larson), there alone, talks about how marriage has drained away his lifeblood. All that’s left is bitterness and regret. And his reason for not divorcing fits the theme extremely well. “The sex is so angry,” he says, “that I can’t get away.”
For anger, Eden and her pseudo cult claim to have the answers. They explain it to their friends over a round of drinks. During their time away, she and David joined the Invitation, along with Pruitt and the seductress. It’s a Mexico-based collective (don’t call it a cult) led by a charismatic personality (seen during that infomercial) who promises an inner peace (which Eden feigns having achieved). The group traffics in early-Scientology-style mind games, have a decidedly spiritual element to their thinking, and claim to have unlocked the hidden mental capacities required to overcome the effects of human trauma. And for anybody who doesn’t listen, they’ve got a threatening look, with more to come later. The film is directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body) and written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (Ride Along, R.I.P.D., Kusama’s own Aeon Flux). Together they’ve devised a structure that ensures the audience often knows even less than most of the characters do. Traumas themselves are rolled out like dinner courses, at a deliberate pace. For Will, the visit to his old home triggers snap-cut flashbacks of the ’70s-psychological-thriller variety. We deduce, as the flashbacks are served, that he and Eden lost a child to a freak accident a few years ago. Now he has to deduce why all these smiley snake-oil salesmen are so dedicated to keeping him and his friends locked up in this mansion, with nothing but awkward conversation and fine wine to busy them. He searches the cabinets for drugs and stares out the window for clues. He screams out unheeded warnings and stays alert for poison in every drink. He plays Hercule Poirot to their L. Ron Hubbard.
Kusama has the artistry needed to orient the geography of both the house and the people inside of it. If Will is snooping through a room, then you know where that room is in relation to everybody else; and in terms of filmcraft, that’s a major talent. The screenplay is rarely as deft, leaning on an allegory as blunt as a baseball bat. As the cult’s nature reveals itself and the guests begin to fight back, we separate them all into one of two camps: those who face trauma and want to die, up against those who are steadfast in their survivalist nature. There’s a whole cycle of independent horror films now where the subtext itself physically manifests within the villain (The Witch and It Follows come to mind, among a handful of others). It happens in The Invitation, where the manifestation of willpower (named Will) fights against the manifestation of a spoiled inner life (named Eden), with the weight of all those snakebitten relationships on their shoulders. They’re stuck in this home—implausibly, illogically, and against all sense of intelligence—because there are metaphors that demand sorting out. They’re fighting out a fable.
If there’s texture beyond that, it’s provided by the paint on the walls. The upscale home supplies a class element to the text; the place “wasn’t ever mine,” says Will, who’s decidedly scruffier than his counterparts. Little is done in the text to expand on the subject, but the general disposition of the conversations suggests that social bias might explain the rash decision to stay all night: Will is always riled up and behaving with no regard for social codes (“Why is everybody acting so fucking polite?”), while Eden is always hiding her true motives behind gentility (pouring another glass of Rothschild wine for one of her yet-unconvinced guests.) You can call her Bougie Bitch, and you can call him Working Class. But just don’t ask where he works. Beyond the walls of that house, the screenplay is a barren text, driven by a nearly nonexistent offscreen mythology. The metaphor is all. If these characters have lives beyond Eden—and if the Invitation has an operating principle beyond the one sold in the infomercial—then it’s been left deliberately blank. The Invitation’s constructed world is as constricting as its closed-door setting. Maybe that’s why nobody thought to leave.
THE INVITATION. UNRATED. OPENS FRIDAY, 4.8, AT BRATTLE THEATRE. 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. PLAYS THROUGH THURSDAY, 4.14.