Film Review: THE INVITATION

There is a fine line between the thriller and horror genres, which film fans have been debating for decades. My personal definition has to do with mathematics – a thriller will follow a clear path of reason and logic, no matter how muddled it gets; while horror is the destruction of logic. Every once in a while, a film will come along that inhabits both genres ingeniously. One such film is Karyn Kusama’s THE INVITATION.

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Kusama is perhaps best-known for her direction of “Jennifer’s Body,” a film people love to hate. This latest effort displays all of the talent that might have been lost with Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried. “The Invitation” has a deliciously simple setup: a group of friends are reunited for a dinner party by a woman they haven’t seen in two years. Our main character used to be married to this woman, before an unspoken tragedy drove them apart. As the dinner progresses he notices strange things, subtle things, that point to a drastic change – and sinister intentions – in his host.

Beginning with a bang as our character has to mercy-kill a coyote, this thriller does not let its audience breathe. Kusama directs her actors – including the incredible John Carroll Lynch – through unbearably tense scenes that escalate from amusing to bizarre. She infuses the film with a surreal style that jumps back in time, makes us doubt, especially as the main character begins to suspect his guests of malevolent deeds. And she manages to keep the secret for most of the running time.

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This film follows the same rule of tension-building that we saw in “Goodnight Mommy” last year, and was outlined by Alfred Hitchcock. Place a bomb under the table, allow it to tick for five minutes, but don’t let it go off. This keeps the audience aware of danger but does not give them the satisfaction of seeing it play out. There are no jump-scares, no sudden outbursts; everyone is well-behaved and accepting, somehow, of the strange goings-ons. This also makes the film feel horribly authentic. In reality, that is how people would react. In fiction it becomes agonizing to watch – in the best way possible.

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We spend our time in a decadent house, with a crew of intelligent yuppies, ranging in race and orientation – a refreshing thing to see when much of film is so white-washed. They are normal people encountering abnormal things. The brand of weirdness that we see is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, who knows better than anyone how to set up an average domestic scene and infuse it with uncanny tension. Nothing overt happens – no dead bodies in the closet, Satanic symbols in the bathroom – but we feel in danger regardless. Kusama is cruel but brilliant for keeping us in suspense until the last possible moment. The final revelation is not original, but it feels earned. I will say no more than that.

In the end, the film winds up feeling human in the most heartbreaking way. What struck me so deeply was this sense of emotional reality – while I was frightened and thrilled, I also felt a sense of tragedy. So many genre films forgo that sensibility in favor of a hard-boiled and ‘brutal’ exoskeleton – but what is more brutal than human sadness? Kusama understands this, and uses its effect to the fullest extent.

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While it may too slow for some viewers, and the ‘twist’ ending might not shock you like you want, “The Invitation” is undeniably a massive display of talent. It is horrific in the most human way. I am thrilled that Kusama could show her chops in this manner, and cannot wait to see what she does next. (Her upcoming project is a segment in a female-directed horror anthology.) To see the folly, the brutality, and the tragedy of normal behavior, see this film – but be warned.

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