Driving through the Hollywood Hills to a dinner party at his ex-wife’s house, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) hits a coyote that came out of nowhere. Both he and his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), are understandably startled. With the animal half-dead, Will puts it out of its misery with a tire iron from the trunk. While it’s an eerie and intense start to The Invitation, that’s nothing compared with what’s to come from director Karyn Kusama’s (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body) steadily mesmerizing psychological thriller.
Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), now lives with her new partner, David (Michiel Huisman), in the house she and Will previously shared, and he hasn’t seen her for two years after their relationship ended quite traumatically; it’s clear that the two still carry emotional scars. Adding to Will’s wariness, Eden has been out of touch, and this is the first time in a while that he’s reconnected with her and their diverse group of friends, all of whom are in their late 30s.
Eden acts strangely right away, constantly playing with her necklace and at one point lashing out violently at one of her friends for poking fun at her. Will closely watches Eden and David, particularly the latter, who’s constantly lurking about the house. The couple also hosts a young woman they picked up in Mexico, where they have recently been living. Another guest, Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), joins the group, and shortly afterward Eden and David gather everyone around to show a video from Mexico of a women dying, though seemingly saved from pain by a man named Dr. Joseph (Toby Huss). Everyone is shocked, though Eden assures everyone that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Will is especially upset when Eden claims that her new adopted outlook gives her freedom from the pain and memories of her past, which he cannot let go of.
The tension only escalates as the group sits down to a wine-sodden dinner. One friend has already left, unable to handle the blunt. While everyone thinks Will’s suspicion stems from his history with Eden, he can’t shake the feeling that David, Eden, and Pruitt are up to something more sinister than they’re letting on. After gradually building up the suspense, the last 20 minutes of The Invitation are incredibly intense, mirroring the film’s opening scene in unexpected and violent ways.
Kusama does an impressive job of moving the dinner party conversation fluidly from the mundane to the bizarre and of conveying Will’s growing paranoia. There’s some very strange behavior occurring, but the direction makes it easy to question whether Will is paranoid or completely justified in his fears. The house, meanwhile, feels both claustrophobic and homey. Aside from the opening scene, the movie takes place entirely in one location. Kusama builds dread in both the cavernous open living rooms and the enclosed spaces of the house, while the large number of people crowding the screen at given times adds to the tension. While no actor (except for maybe Lynch, who’s well known for his creepy roles) stands out especially, the ensemble give their characters dimension, which makes the horror all the more effective. For its pacing and thrilling conclusion, The Invitation is worth accepting.