Director: Karyn Kusama
Talk about a double feature pairing with THE OVERNIGHT. Karyn Kusama’s low-budget, single location ensemble thriller is perhaps the epitome of the Jason Blum formula for lo-fi suspense. Set entirely in LA without any celebrity actors and shot in virtually one location, it’s honestly a shocker that it isn’t a Blumhouse acquisition. I’m not easily pushed to the limits of comfort, but through a riveting cast and subtle use of ever-growing claustrophobia, THE INVITATION may just be one of the only Hollywood thrillers in recent memory that successfully withholds breathing room for its entire running time. Endlessly eerie and fantastically written, this indie gem should not only cement Kusama as a force to be reckoned with in an otherwise male-dominated genre, but also represents everything that a filmmaker should be striving for when working with limited resources.
Following the story of lead actor Logan Marshall-Green, a mourning father who is invited to his lavish former home by his ex-wife two years after her sudden disappearance, audiences witness the hills of Los Angeles transform into a Chinese finger trap. Unexpectedly reunited, Green exudes a mutual discomfort that he shares with nobody but the audience, forcing us to consider whether his behavior is natural amidst the peculiar behavior of his ex-wife and her new husband, or if his disconnect is merely a coping mechanism for his inability to get over his dead son. What’s brilliant is that either way you spin it, Kusama’s film is a nauseating portrayal of depression.
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The screenplay is also where THE INVITATION really hits its stride. Rewarding audiences that are patient, it becomes ever so apparent that the film functions regardless of how literally the onscreen events want to be interpreted. Green’s sorrow is so palpable and yet understated that it never feels like Kusama is begging for emotional engagement. Instead, Green does the emotional work for her, staring off blankly, providing a haunting reservation that allows for us to look deeper into his sadness but also join him on his quiet quest to uncover the mystery at play. Fundamentally, THE INVITATION can be analyzed as both a horror/thriller à la Joel Edgerton’s THE GIFT or an analogy for depression akin to Von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA. What’s so effective is that there’s no need for these experiences to be mutually exclusive, treating viewers with a lingering sense of dread long after the film concludes, regardless of if the conflict wants to be processed as purely internal or also external.
Halfway into the film, Green explains that there’s a voice trapped inside of him that’s begging to scream, a running motif that allows for Kusama to explore the protagonist’s inability to confront his demons. The pain is bottled up to a point where where he, much like the bottles of wine that are being ceremoniously opened during the film, is like a cork on the verge of being cocked. Through blue-tinted flashbacks of his deceased son, Green makes brief escapes from the sweltering heat of the film’s milieu, only to suffer through the torment of being reminded of his child’s passing. As such, no direction leads him to a moment of escape, and as the sound design crescendos during these glimpses into a prior life, Kusama throws us back into the present right before Green can let out that proverbial scream he so desperately needs.
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But what is arguably THE INVITATION’s most ingenious tactical decision is that even long after the film’s harrowing climax, this sense of unease doesn’t let up. The sound design gets one final opportunity to build up once again just before cutting to black, allowing for viewers to come to the conclusion that despite everything that’s transpired, our protagonist is still the same mourning father he was 100 minutes ago, unable to let out that scream that he’s got bottled up.
Taking no asset for granted, THE INVITATION thrives off of its attention to detail within its confined space. Set almost entirely in a chic, Mulholland Drive home, Kusama toys with harsh red tones to establish the duplicitous nature of her protagonist’s once familiar locale. As the acquainted begins to feel all the more foreign, Kusama plays with discomfort both in form and in performance, allowing for the aesthetic choices to slowly push characters outwards, rendering the 70s architecture little more than a claustrophobic sauna. And long after the film has come to a close, the red oil lamp lingers in the viewer’s mind like a vision from hell, proving that THE INVITATION is not only one of the finest low-budget thrillers in years, but can proudly stand tall as an equal to fellow ensemble party drama FESTEN.