This review is entirely spoiler-free.
The month-old trailer for The Invitation is one of a rare breed. Cryptic, creepy, and alluring, it’s an anomaly among today’s trailers which seem to want to show as much as they possibly can in their 90 second runtimes. Even though nothing is revealed – except for the movie taking place during a dinner party – it’s very clear that something isn’t right at this dinner party. But trailers can oftentimes be deceiving. Is the movie able to deliver on the ominous, mysterious tone in the preview?
When The Invitation opens, we’re in a car with Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who are on their way to a dinner party being thrown by Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her new husband David (Michael Huisman). Will and Eden have been divorced since the accidental death of their son two years earlier, after which Eden ended up running off to Mexico with David, whom she met at grief counseling. This is the first time since then that Will or any of the group of friends have seen or heard from Eden or her new husband.
Will and Kira are the last two stragglers to arrive at the house (which is tucked away high in the Hollywood hills), and by the time they show up the party has already begun. Everyone who was invited is present (save for one person who seems to be late), the wine is flowing and the conversation is lively. Soon enough, Eden and David introduce to the group Sadie and Pruitt, two friends they made while south of the border. With the group pretty much complete, Eden and David don’t waste much time in explaining why everyone was invited to the get-together. As the night gets more bizarre, Will seems to be the only one taking issue with the proceedings. He grows more and more suspicious of the hosts, while the guests grow more and more suspicious of Will. And that’s all I’ll say.
Leading up to the payoff, The Invitation‘s whole thing is to keep you wondering: are the hosts actually crazy or aren’t they? The only problem is, the crazies in question play it so overtly weird right from the get go that it ruins any momentum the movie would’ve gained had they played it more subtle, or even entirely straight. The way it stands, you’re left with one of two scenarios by the end: either it turns out they aren’t weird, in which case you’ll be asking: Well why’d they act so goddamn unnecessarily weird, then? Or, it ends up they are actually weird, and you’ll find yourself saying: Well, no shit they were weird! They were weird from square one! Why didn’t everyone leave immediately? Neither allows for any sort of genuinely surprising or satisfying outcome.
Additionally, The Invitation, like a lot of modern indie thrillers, suffers from idiot logic – an attribute that was once relegated only to slasher films but, for whatever reason, seems to have seeped its way into more real world-based plot lines. It’s no longer just doped up horny teens who, whilst being hunted by a burned/resurrected/vengeance-fueled unstoppable maniac, continually keep themselves in dangerous situations despite better judgement. No, now even the most simple and straight-forward of thrillers featuring perceptive adult leads feels the need to dumb their characters down just to help the plot lurch forward. Even after suspending disbelief, there are three distinct moments very early in The Invitation that are too objectionable for the partygoers (or us, the audience) to ignore – and yet, that’s exactly what happens. Alarming incidences treated with blank stares, which eventually give way to jovial chatter, and the movie just keeps rolling along.
After the climax, I just wanted to know: why? There’s no reasoning, no motivation, and no explanation for what transpires in the third act. Taking what we’ve learned about all the characters – their pasts, their relationships with each other – the actions feel completely out-of-place, excessive. The film also tries to make Will an unreliable narrator too late in its runtime, something that would’ve strengthened the film had it been established earlier, if not immediately. By the time we’re given a glimpse that perhaps not all is as it seems (an incredibly fleeting moment, not that it matters), the film only has about 10 minutes left.
The film is not without its strengths. Technically it is an enticing movie. It’s beautifully lensed, making good use of its single-setting location, including lots of great night photography. And it has a great string score that perfectly sets the mood and helps heighten the unease when necessary. But The Invitation‘s failings are too essential to be ignored. The things that don’t work are the key components the movie is built upon, and the results are a unfulfilling final product.