Showing at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, The Invitation (2015) was, according to Richard Kuipers, programmer of the festival’s horror-themed Freak Me Out collection, the fastest of his film sessions to sell out. This latest feature from director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, 2000; Jennifer’s Body, 2009) relies upon ambiguity and the element of surprise. I’ll try not to give away too much here.
The film opens on a couple, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), driving to a dinner party. We gather it’s to be a reunion of sorts following a separation caused by an unspecified, traumatic event. The camera gives us a blurry, moving view of the treetops above the road as the opening credits roll, presenting an atypically sombre view of LA. From the outset, there’s an edge of uncertainty, the sense of a world slightly askew.
As Will and Kira arrive at their destination, an opulent house in the Hollywood Hills, we’re like another, invisible guest at this weird gathering, trying to ascertain who everyone is and what precisely is going on. No character seems entirely open. The cast in Kusama’s ensemble piece create an excruciating sense of the sort of forced bonhomie that descends upon a group of people reestablishing connections and trying to ignore certain dissonant elements at play. As the evening progresses, the party guests seem caught in a spider web presided over by their attentive, yet cloying and vaguely obnoxious hosts, who radiantly claim to have discovered a mysterious form of spiritual enlightenment. Tension is built through a mastery of those little wrong notes, those slips in the social norms – a slap, a personal anecdote that turns unexpectedly sinister – whose combined effect makes us suspect that something’s off.
Will is the only one prepared to point out a possible sinister undercurrent beneath the convivial buzz – and his interpretation may be clouded by mental illness and recent personal tragedy. There’s a parallel here with Sebastian Silva’s Magic Magic (2013), whose protagonist’s reliability is also called into question. How important is it to follow your gut feeling, The Invitation asks, when to do so means flouting social etiquette and risking public embarrassment?
Viewed from another angle, the film presents an interesting critique of intransigent systems of belief. Given California’s history as home in the West of alternative movements both benign and sinister, Los Angeles forms the perfect location for the miasma of New Age spirituality and self-help that hangs over The Invitation: something that’s magnificently emphasised in the film’s final twist.