Sixteen years ago, director Karyn Kusama made a startling first impression with “Girlfight.” Nothing she has made since matches that initial achievement — a gripping feminist boxing tale in which teen Michelle Rodriguez unleashes an angry retort to the sexism surrounding her with little more than a scowl (and then she gets in the ring). In the ensuing years, Kusama has channeled the visceral intensity of her inaugural work into more traditional spectacles. The dystopian action-fantasy of “Æon Flux” and the high school horror show “Jennifer’s Body” both foregrounded unorthodox women as their protagonists, but the progressive focus couldn’t disguise their half-baked stories.
With “The Invitation,” Kusama has returned to a subtler register. Having reworked formulas several times out, she finally heads in a surprising direction.
While technically a thriller that dovetails into slasher territory for its third act, “The Invitation” maintains a unique intrigue that constantly defies expectations. Set in the confines of a palatial house in the Hollywood Hills, where a dinner party reunion takes a series of ghoulish turns, the movie finds bearded Will (Logan Marshall-Green) reuniting with his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) along with assorted friends and their partners several years after a traumatic event. The particulars of that event remain unclear for much of the story, but they’re also irrelevant. Kusama scrutinizes emotions and attitudes by isolating them from too many details.
It’s a sign of things to come when Will accidentally kills a coyote on his way to the house. More than anything else, “The Invitation” deals with the disorienting effect of sudden events. Set almost entirely within the confines of the home — where, it turns out, he used to live — “The Invitation” careens through strange conversations that shift from harmless party talk to darker possibilities.
As Will grows increasingly suspicious of his old cohorts’ motives, unfamiliar people start showing up, and the nature of the gathering grows increasingly mysterious. Even before they start talking about their fascination with a spiritual guru who harbors a creepy obsession with death, there’s a certain cultlike quality to the way the group surrounds Will and his current wife (Emayatzy Corinealdi) in the living room. Kusama and her screenwriters (husband Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi) seem to be suggesting that group dynamics have the ability to squeeze out individual expression. Stuck with each other, they can’t possibly all get along. The house, at first a safe place for people seeking catharsis from a troubling existence, instead traps them in it.
While the high bar for reunions gone wrong is “The Celebration,” Kusama’s abstract approach suggests Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” by way of Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” (with a touch of Ti West’s Jonestown-inspired “The Sacrament”). At times, the humorless tone and meandering conversations drag, but an expert cast keeps the sense of mystery in play. While Marshall-Green mostly looks infuriated with his peers, Blanchard delivers a wonderfully eerie turn as his mentally unstable ex. Michael Huisman becomes the de facto host of the proceedings with a strangely charismatic delivery, even when he forces the whole room to watch a video of death.
And then there are the unknown variables invited to join the shindig: Lindsay Burdge (“A Teacher”) is a unnerving femme fatale who tries to seduce with every stare, while the always engaging John Carroll Lynch portrays another strange visitor who clearly has psychopathic tendencies from the moment he walks through the door. His casual admission of a criminal background in the context of a seemingly harmless party game marks one of a few highlights when the aimless chatter suddenly gets dead serious.
Ultimately, “The Invitation” suggests the idea of an enticing premise that it never quite delivers. The soul-searching dialogue often feels heavy-handed, and once Kusama shifts gears for the bloody finale, the running and screaming automatically yields a lesser kind of movie crammed into the narrative. But it still has sufficient payoff, with a memorable final shot that paints an even broader picture of the lunacy in play.
If Kusama’s films to date have a single theme linking all of them together, it’s that life is a constant battleground, no matter the specifics. That makes “The Invitation” her definitive statement, as it lands on the suggestion that surviving one tumultuous experience only leads to more of the same.
“The Invitation” opens in theaters and VOD this Friday.