Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: The Invitation (2015)

What happens when The Big Chill becomes…the Big Kill?

That’s a very basic -- and admittedly unsubtle -- description of the premise for the superbly-crafted independent horror-thriller, The Invitation (2015), now available on VOD.

The film’s setting is a reunion dinner attended by a group of thirty-somethings who, in the previous two years, have gone their separate ways. The dinner event occurs in the scenic Hollywood Hills.

The reunion, however, is only the cover for a darker, more sinister purpose, as the invited guests discover as the night stretches on. 

The Invitation is directed by Karyn Kusama, who also directed Girlfight (2000) and Jennifer’s Body (2009), and stars Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus [2012]) as Will, the protagonist and perhaps most important guest at the party.

The Invitation is a noteworthy example of the difficult-but-rewarding slow-burn brand of horror filmmaking, and all the film’s action and outright terror comes to the forefront only in the last twenty minutes or so.  Up until that point, The Invitation veritably marinates in the fertile sauce of social miscues and social awkwardness.  

At a party -- at someone else’s home -- where do you draw the line between discomfort and danger? What are your responsibilities to your host, and what are your responsibilities to yourself?

For much of the film, these are key questions. Will and the other guests are asked to dine with two strange individuals they don’t know, and to remain in a house in which all the doors are, strangely, locked. And then their hosts ask them to watch a disturbing video and play a parlor game called “I Want…”

It’s creepy and strange, but as a viewer, one wonders: is it just strange, or is this party actually a very dangerous place to be?

Beneath its focus on situations of social awkwardness, The Invitation also expertly and meaningfully probes matters of shame, responsibility, and denial.  It’s a heavy and heady mix, and yet The Invitation -- a very claustrophobic and compelling film -- will legitimately scare you.

“Pain is optional.”

Two years after the accidental death of his son Ty, and a divorce from his wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), Will (Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Gorinealde) accept an invitation to a dinner party at his old house in the Hollywood Hills.

There, Eden and her new husband, David (Michael Huisman) have gathered all of Will and Eden’s former social circle, ostensibly for a reunion.

But two strangers have also been invited: the brutish Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) and the inappropriately-friendly Sadie (Lindsay Burge).

Will wonders why these interlopers are present, and soon gets his answer. David and Eden met them in Mexico, at a self-help retreat for a philosophy called “The Invitation.”  David and Eden now live according to the tenets of this belief system.  “It’s about communion,” and casting aside pain, Eden promises.

But Will sees the ethos of the Invitation quite differently; as an attempt to forget and deny the past. In his case, with Eden, that means forgetting about Ty. Will refuses to participate, and begins to grow suspicious of his hosts when he learns all the doors are locked. He also registers his hosts’ unhappiness when one of the guests, Claire (Marieh Delfino), attempts to leave early.

When Will receives a voice mail from a guest who has never shown up for the party yet says he arrived – Choi -- he is certain that something sinister is occurring. Will makes a scene at dinner, only to find that his suspicions seem ill-founded.

As wine is served for a toast, however, Will again detects something dark and dangerous roiling just beneath the surface of the party…

“It feels like you’re selling us something.”

The Invitation sets up two opposing points-of-view and puts them in collision. 

On one hand, we have Will’s point of view.  He has been “waiting to die” since the death of his son, Ty, as he readily admits, and he sees Ty everywhere.  Ty may be dead, but Will’s memory of him is so strong that he literally “sees” him (via flashbacks,) as his memory is triggered by his old house. 

On first approach to the house, Will remembers seeing Ty playing with his toy dinosaurs at a table in the living room.  Upon going to the bathroom, Will recollects a time that Ty interrupted Eden and him when they were taking a bath together. At another juncture, he recalls the events surrounding a pool-side party, and Ty’s accidental death.

I am not always a big fan of flashbacks in movies, for many reasons, but they are utilized very well by Kusama in The Invitation.

Some thing, or event in “the present” triggers a memory, a moment from “the past,” and so we glean from the editing how much Will lives and suffers with his guilt, and pain.  Everything – a sight, a smell, a sound -- reminds him of what he’s lost, and yet he doesn’t seek to forget any of it. On the contrary, he seeks out those memories. 

For example, Will asks to see Ty’s room, which has been converted into a home office, and there experiences a memory of resting on a bed, and looking his boy in the eyes. 

For Will, living day-to-day means contending with what he has lost, and the constant “insertion” of the past via flashbacks into the movie’s present not only reveals the important back-story, it allows us to understand that for Will, the past is not dead.

He carries it with him every minute of every day.

Uniquely, the film’s screenplay also makes Will relive “pieces” of the past in other more oblique ways. In one of the film’s first (startling) scenes, his car hits a coyote in the road.  The coyote is injured, but not dead. At a loss about what to do, Will attempts to put the animal out of its suffering by beating it to death quickly with a tire-iron. 

Importantly, Ty’s death also involves being (hit) by a blunt instrument, a metal baseball bat. Will’s (mercy) killing of the coyote therefore, is an echo of his son’s death; another signpost of his tragic past; of the past that he carries with him.

Later in the film, Will is attacked by a character, and injures -- nearly kills her -- in the precise way that another character’s death is explained, verbally, in the film, during the “I Want…” game. 

Again, this can’t be a coincidence. 

Rather, it is a symbolic way of noting that the past lives on in the present; that we can’t really be in the here- and-now if we don’t remember where we’ve been.  The past is the invisible luggage we carry with us every single day of our lives. It haunts us in direct ways (via the flashbacks) and in indirect ways too (via similar events).

Will’s point-of-view comes in conflict, in The Invitation, with the tenets of Eden and David’s new belief system.  The simple explanation is that they are now part of a “cult,” and that “the invitation” is not simply the “new EST” but something much more insidious. 

Those who subscribe to the beliefs of “The Invitation” insist that “pain is optional” and that they shouldn’t allow anything to get in the way of “enjoying” what they have now. Their whole belief system is about letting go of “negative” emotions and looking only “ahead” instead of behind.

Therefore, Eden’s belief system is about forgetting the past, and reveling in the moment. She and David attempt to foster this feeling of living in the moment among their guests by playing that parlor game, “I Want.”

Very soon, one character admits she wants cocaine. 

Eden wants to kiss a friend. 

And one character declares he wants a blow job.

The predilection with guilt, responsibility and the past -- exemplified by Will -- is replaced, in Eden’s philosophy, with hedonistic, selfish impulses and instant gratification. When Will chides Eden for forgetting about Ty, she responds that “we’re all trying to figure out how to go on.”

That may be true, but some answers are inherently superior to others.

Will is sad and bereft, and working -- slowly -- through his pain. He will always carry some element of sadness with him, but one senses he will also, via his path, ultimately find a different kind of happiness.   

Eden, David, Saidie and Pruitt believe they have found a “beautiful” way to avoid feeling guilt, responsibility and pain, but their path involves impulsive action, followed by murder and death.

The Invitation is very much about Will and Eden’s world views in collision.  Eden is well-named because she believes she exists in a state of innocent bliss (like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden), and is ejected from that innocence when she remembers her pain and suffering. Her knowledge of self, pushed and prodded by Will’s words, ejects her from the (false) paradise of the cult she has joined. 

Will, of course, is also well-named. In broad terms, “will” might be defined as “the faculty by which one decides a course.”  In the film, Will remains true to his beliefs, and will not let the methods of control dictated by the cult determine his future. 

Going down this road further, even the name “Ty” seems to carry deeper meaning.  A tie is the thing that binds things together.  Emotional ties bind us to those we love in this life. “Ty” is what keeps Will grounded, and what Eden tries to abandon and shed.

The Invitation vets its story of opposing word-views or philosophies in a simple but constructive way. It makes the viewer feel increasingly uncomfortable, but does so one incremental step at a time. 

Sadie’s introduction in the film is an example. Will catches a glimpse of her in her room, and she’s wearing no pants or underwear. Their eyes meet, and she’s not shy. She holds his gaze. He looks away, embarrassed. From this point on, we don’t trust Sadie. We know that she possesses different moral boundaries/physical boundaries than we do. There is something off about her, and her sense of social propriety.

Pruitt’s story during the game of ‘I Want’ is similarly discomforting. He tells a story that reveals too much information about his past, and makes others extremely uncomfortable in his presence. He is either unaware of their discomfort, or he doesn’t care.  But Pruitt basically reveals something about himself that makes it impossible to enjoy his company in a social setting such as this party.

No sane or rational, or courteous person, would share such a story in this company, at this setting.

Step by step, act by act, The Invitation asks us to put ourselves in Will’s situation. How would we feel at a party like this?  With Pruitt in attendance. With Sadie there.  With the doors locked, and bars on the windows.

How much would our own internal barometer for politeness and courtesy demand we put up with? Or would we heed the voice in our head telling us that something is very wrong, and get the hell out.

Will clearly possesses a fine sense of himself and his ethos, and can only be pushed so far before realizing that things are amiss and that he must assert his feelings.  He is not a man who will drink the kool aid -- or the red wine -- in this case, just to get along with others, just to observe the social graces.

The Invitation’s last act erupts into violence and death, and in many ways it’s actually the least intriguing portion of the film.  For the first two acts, the film delves beautifully into levels of disturbing ambiguity.  

We don’t know, for instance, precisely what happens to Claire after she gets in her car and leaves the party.  Similarly, as the action unfolds, we don’t know for certain if Sadie, Eden, David and Pruitt are just weird, or actually a menace.  As far as we know, the party could turn into a tease, an orgy, or something much worse.

The resolution isn’t so interesting, finally, as the build-up of suspense.

Still, The Invitation is a smart horror movie, and one cleverly that examines human nature.  Many of us explicitly seek out philosophies that make us feel better about the things we have endured and suffered in this life.   

For others, those philosophies feel uncomfortably like dangerous con jobs, like we’re being sold on something that isn’t true.

As Eden notes, “we’re all just trying to figure out how to go on”-- it’s true -- but some people want to impose their creepy and inappropriate answers on the rest of us.

The Invitation reminds us not to drink the kool aid.

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