Invitation, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/08/15 13:34:21
SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: That I was asking myself when the stabbing was going to start fairly early on in "The Invitation" implies bad things, either about my character or the filmmakers' performance in terms of telling a story that, in fact, need not have that sort of violence at all. So which is it? Well, I'm fairly sure that I'm not a terrible person, enough so that I'll at least entertain the idea that this was a sign of building tension.Tension is certainly understandable; it starts with Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) on the way to a dinner party with a fancy invitation and a reason to be uncomfortable: It's being hosted by Will's alarmingly cheerful ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) in the house where Will and Eden lost their son - and Eden had more or less dropped off the radar for the previous two years. Five out of six long-time friends of Will and Eden are already there, as is Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), a houseguest they met while spending time in Mexico. Another acquaintance from that time with "The Invited", Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), also joins them, and they show an video which throws the already edgy mood even further off.
The reasonably clever thing about the script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (against whom director Karyn Kusama apparently holds no feelings from their also writing Aeon Flux) is that it does not, necessarily, need to develop into a thriller. In fact, for the first good chunk of the movie, the drama is all driven by conventional things - Will is still obviously a wreck years after his son's death while Eden's deciding not to bother with negative emotions seems obviously unhealthy (if also practical) and a contrast to how the house seems to be locked down like a fortress, and the tension between Will and David is obvious. Even the obviously heavy foreshadowing of Will having to put down a coyote he hit on the drive up may perhaps only be reflected in that video of an assisted suicide. There's meaty material there, although the sort of movie where people simply confront each other about their past and emotions could probably be done with roughly half as many characters.
Not that any actor particularly deserves to be cut, even if some characters wouldn't be missed. Most eyes will be on the core group, and they turn in good work. Logan Marshall-Green never fails to show the heavy burden that Will carries around but doesn't over-emote about it, and though it's clear that Will still has complicated feelings for Eden, there's never any reason to see his relationship with Kira as any sort of compromise. Emayatzy Corinealdi's Kira could still be marginalized by this, and to some extent is by the script, but Corinealdi gives her a forceful and caring enough personality that viewers will likely tend to look for what she's doing even in a crowded room. Tammy Blanchard, in contrast, keeps Eden interesting for just how forced her big smile is despite her best efforts, even as those best efforts get close enough to genuine to be disturbing. Michiel Huisman comes off as having unethical intentions but also being too lightweight to be the monster Will suspects as David. John Carroll Lynch is probably the most recognizable character act in the staff, and that makes him a good pairing with Huisman even if they're not necessarily working together most of the time - his age, size, and ability to flatten his voice even after not seeming hugely animated make him naturally threatening. And there are a half-dozen or so supporting cast members who work off each other very well and create enough solid personalities that conversations tend to be interesting, just in terms of watching these two people with some sort of history talk.
Unfortunately, things start to peter out well before the filmmakers are ready to bring things to a climax. For all that Marshall-Green is utterly believable as Will, that soon becomes something of a problem: He is so miserable at this party and spends so much time wandering off and being sad that after a while, every moment where he hasn't just left stretches credibility something fierce. Of course, if he were to leave, there's either no movie or things have to jump forward before Hay, Manfredi, and Kusama would feel they've finished seeding everything they want to. That leads to other stretches, like how everyone seems to go from thinking Eden & David are off to Will being the one with the problem much too quickly, even before a fair reason for them to do so in the story. There are also some real stumbling blocks in the story - you need to sell a convenient lack of cellular service a lot better than this does in 2015, and the tight focus on the characters in this location doesn't give the idea that the Invited has penetrated the mainstream as much credibility as a couple easily-missed lines attempt to establish.
All that said, when the filmmakers decide to stop screwing around and get down to things actually happening, they string together an impressive string of shocks. Kusama shows why she's been a frustratingly underemployed filmmaker by giving a clinic on how to lead audiences through a setting (with some strong help from the camera and sound departments) right along with the frightened characters without limiting herself to one point of view - everything is staged impeccably. And as much as the obvious physical elements of this big last-act face-off are done very well, perhaps the most satisfying element is how the cast gets used - there are a lot of them, after all, and while the obvious route is getting rid of people, this sort of situation gives a fair number of cast members that the audience may have overlooked or pigeonholed a chance to surprise and shine.It's arguably enough, particularly if the build-up works better for others than it did for me - I gather most people would actually be polite enough to stick out a dinner party designed to make them feel three types of lousy and thus would find themselves more sympathetic than wondering why the characters were still there. When "The Invitation" works, it's damn impressive, and I'd like it as a whole much more if those parts were better-connected.
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