This is another great one from 2016 (when it was released in the US). A really underrated, incredibly atmospheric horror film from Karyn Kusama, The Invitation has such a terrific sense of paranoia. It’s an unnerving watch, has a satisfying climax and denouement, and successfully sways us so many times with a lead who may or may not be reliable.
Logan Marshall-Green, who I really only know from Prometheus, is fantastic as Will, a man suffering PTSD from a death in the family. He and his current girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are invited to the house of his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard). The invitation is vague, and the evening is full of tension.
Alonside Marshall-Green, Blanchard, John Carroll Lynch, and Lindsay Burdge really shine. The latter three get to have more fun than most of the other actors. They play it pretty creepy throughout. Burdge and Blanchard in particular felt like women on the edge of a really unpredictable cliff. They could have stabbed someone or hugged them at almost any turn and I would’ve believed it.
Some SPOILERS below.
Kusama’s direction is tight, as is the script. There are a few things that work in this film that I often don’t like: a prologue with the old-hat “hit an animal with your car to prove something about your character;” lots of flashbacks; a heavy score. All of the above are really great in here thanks to some solid editing and great composition (both visually and musically). The former – which I most recently saw in A Most Violent Year – seems like a crutch for a lot of writers. Hell, I’ve written it before. At the start of The Invitation it also feels like just that. And I get it. The idea is, of course, that this guy has the potential to be violent, but only if faced with it. The reason I like it is because how the violence in the film ultimately plays out (ie Will doesn’t really have to be violent), and how much of the film, like the JC Chandor movie referenced, is really just a burgeoning sense of dread.
The climactic scene of the film is really fantastic. One of my favorite scenes of the year. Kusama does such a good job of elongating time. The sequence is also a great screenwriting reminder that context can be everything. It only really works because of what just happened two scenes ago.
Pruitt (Lynch) comes to find Will and bring him back to the dinner party. Kusama and DP Bobby Shore shoot it in slow-motion, with the pockets of shadow heavier and yellows that have dominated the look so far at their deepest:
Lynch gives some great stares in this moment. That last frame of blackness leads into the dinner party, but it’s a nice split-second; as though Will is going through some portal or heading into a nightmare.
He comes through and into a WS, after which we get the first of many emphases on the wine being poured:
We’re still in slo-mo here, and now is when Kusama also begins to further slow down time by cutting around the room. There’s this beautifully frightening close-up on Eden, terrifying in her hidden glee-
-and cuts to various other guests:
Kusama and Shore keep a wine glass in a whole lot of frames. That MCU on Will is – moment of relative action aside – about as wide as Kusama gets in this scene on him. We’ll see the frames gradually tighten.
At this point I’m thinking two things: don’t drink the Kool Aid (which is exactly what Will’s thinking), and Will is probably the craziest person here (which is exactly what Kusama and co-writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi are after). It’s a perfect set-up because the two things are so at odds with one-another. The direction pushes that. The wine glasses in the foreground and background of shots are reminders of the former, while the context and the stoic close-up on Will is a reminder of the latter. Great cognitive dissonance here!
We get tighter on Will, a 2-shot out to Eden and David (Michiel Huisman), a great MCU where Will continues his blank stare while his own glass of wine gets delivered, and then we go into wine inserts:
If it’s not obvious at this point what Will’s thinking then you’ve missed the crux of it all. I also love this moment because it’s a genre cliffhanger. This is either about to be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style domestic party from hell, or it’s about to be a dam-bursting horror film. The film could go either way.
This one’s the clincher (I’m skipping a few frames in here). Eden and David kiss. Will’s CU is a choker. And then the camera cuts slightly out on him but pushes back in as he raises his glass:
Happy couple or farewell kiss?
The first sip-
-and then a series of really fast cuts with some nice work from editor Plummy Tucker who keeps things logical but also really intensely fast as Will smashes everyone’s glasses:
It’s only four shots – the first over-the-should MS, the subsequent tight CU, the wide we’ve already seen, and the fifth shot, which is a new angle and will anticipate what is to come. The angles are so precise and the sort of yo-yoing from MS to CU to WS gives that intensity.
It’s a great emotional outburst from Will – one of only a few true ones to this point in the film – and it shatters the elongated tension from before. The pace change is harsh and it works.
There are a bunch of reactions. That third shot below is just foreground and someone wiping frame – something that’s present often in this entire scene and keeps everything really close and intimate. The last frame shows Sadie (Burdge):
Two new angles – one on Will and one on Sadie – and then the latter attacks. Kusama relies a lot on that WS, but she and Shore are smart to keep it still tightly framed. There’s a lot of foreground and the danger of the balcony in the background, so it’s not just a fallback, it actually packs plenty of punch.
That shot from a few sequences ago where Will smashed all the glasses and we saw a brief new angle on him in semi-profile anticipates Sadie’s attack. Here’s that shot again:
The shot is slightly from the front of the table, not only foreshadowing more interaction between Will and Eden and David, but again, also between Will and Sadie. It’s nice cutting because of how it “moves” us away from Will vs. wine and into Will vs. head-of-the-table-people.
The 180 line breaks when Sadie attacks Will, but it of course doesn’t matter. The spatial relations have been so well-established to this point.
The scene is so precise and I haven’t even gotten to the end of it, which gets crazier! I love how much Kusama uses reaction shots, not only because they do typically tell a story, but also to keep things in Will’s head. He’s analyzing everyone the way we are. Are they all in on it? What is it? Is anyone in on it? How long (that stretching of time helps here) should he wait before acting?
It’s also quite effective that Sadie isn’t really shown at all prior to her big moment. Even in the wide-shot she’s hidden. When she finally then does appear it’s a) surprising because she hasn’t seemed to be much of a part of the scene yet, and b) visceral because she launches out like a hiding animal suddenly released.