“The Invitation” itself is to a swank dinner party in a remote section of the Hollywood Hills, so remote, in fact, that cell service goes in and out, though it is mostly out, because when making suspense movies in these technological days it is important to establish ahead of time that phones can’t work for fear of straining all credibility later on. And rest assured, “The Invitation” seeks to engender suspense, which we know straight away because as Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) drive the winding road to this swank dinner party, they hit a deer, severely wounding it, and Will is forced to put the poor animal out of its misery. That sounds like heavy foreshadowing and it is, and is mostly unnecessary because this movie is heavy on foreshadowing. The soundtrack is strictly discordant tones meant to unsettle and the air of the opulent pad of Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and David (Michiel Huisman), dinner party hosts, is chilly and peculiarly off putting, mirroring the unmistakable sensation that something about these hosts is.....off. There is not a single moment in “The Invitation” where you don’t think “something’s up.”
Director Karyn Kusama, however, working from a screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, covers for this fact. She covers for this fact snarkily with the casual attitude of most of the other party guests, who laugh off Will’s suspicious demeanor by saying things like “it’s L.A.” Ha! You bet it is! And I didn’t doubt that even in the face of the hosts putting on a video of some shaman named Dr. Joseph who soothingly coddles a woman as she passes into the great beyond for all their guests to see that most of these Los Angelenos would remain where they were just because a few bottles of exorbitant wine had been opened. Less flippantly, meanwhile, Kusama also ensures that “The Invitation’s” primary point of view is Will’s, which is important because Will is still trying to work through the death of his adolescent daughter which has left him less than reliable. And it just so happens that he used to raise his daughter in this house because this house used to be his house because he used to be married to Eden.
This means that Will wanders through his old digs, seeing flashes in his mind of the way things were, creating a possible dissonance in what he sees and what he thinks he sees, like David locking doors. Is everything really as off as he suspects or is it all just a product of his imagination? This is what initially generates suspense, but to maintain that suspense, Kusama also has to withhold information, only giving way just enough to keep Will, and us, wary without having a full grasp of the whole story. There are more than a handful of times when Will is just about to unravel what’s happening only to be stopped short by pesky chance. These are protractions to keep you on the edge of your seat, as they say, and that’s fine as far as suspenseful thrillers go. But it’s also precisely what keeps “The Invitation” from cracking through to another tier, like the superior “Coherence”, another dinner party gone wrong extravaganza, but one which used its claustrophobic setting and thriller-like intensity forced its principal character to confront her identity crisis.
It's not a spoiler to say that Eden and David have joined what’s a tantamount to a cult, because this is revealed fairly on, but that cult becomes less about its own inner-workings than this creepy plot device. This scary sect is supposed to be tied back to the grieving process, but that grieving process is never given enough room to breathe in the face of having to lay so many thriller traps for the subsequent payoff. That question of the crazy places one might go in the face of the unthinkable is really interesting, but isn’t as interesting to “The Invitation” as stringing us along to shock us.
The closing shot, not to be revealed, is undoubtedly cool, sure, but more in that way of a really cool magic trick than legit blood curdling, which is pretty much “The Invitation” in general.