Los Angeles, particularly neighborhoods that stand in the shadow of Hollywood, has proven to be a fertile ground for oddball lifestyle trends and new age quackery. For the most part, these nouveau methods of dealing with the various strains of modern life that afflict the affluent are mostly harmless, but occasionally they can be cult-ish and downright destructive. And in her first independent feature since her breakout film “Girlfight,” filmmaker Karyn Kusama takes the backdrop of hippie dippy feel-goodery on the outskirts of Los Angeles to some nerve-jangling extremes with “The Invitation,” a taut thriller that almost doesn’t waste a single step.
In fact, it’s the opening scene that kicks off the film that feels perhaps a bit out of line with the rest of the picture, when Will (Logan Marshall-Green), driving with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to a party being thrown by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard), accidentally hits a coyote. The coyote is still breathing, but clearly maimed beyond any realistic chance of survival, so Will gets a tire iron from the trunk of his car, and ends the animal’s life. It’s a piece of foreshadowing that weighs a bit too heavily on the proceedings that follow, but such is Kusama’s direction (and the needlessness of that sequence) that once the plot gets spinning into motion, you will have likely forgotten that scene has happened anyway. And that’s not just because “The Invitation” spins a good yarn, which it does, but also due to the film’s psychological underpinnings that carry it along until things get hairy.
Certainly, there’s a lot weighing on Will’s mind. Eden’s party is a reunion of sorts, bringing back together a gaggle of friends who haven’t been in regular contact for a couple of years, ever since Will and Eden split up, following the death of their child. Eden disappeared to Mexico, but is now back, looking luminous, and absurdly happy, and even has a new man on her arm, David (Michiel Huisman), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Will. The rest of the old group of pals includes gay couple Tommy and Miguel (Mike Doyle and Jordi Vilasuso); Gina (Michelle Krusiec); the schlubby Ben (Jay Larson); and the prim and proper Claire (Marieh Delfino). However, there’s an odd pall hanging over the proceedings, one that only seems to be getting under the skin of Will. Firstly, he refuses to believe that the once suicidal Eden has let go of the deep pain she felt following their loss so completely that she can now live in their former home, with a smile pasted on her face, and in the throes of what seems to be a happy relationship. Then there’s Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) and the seemingly borderline unstable Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), newcomers to the social circle, invited by Will and David, who don’t quite seem to fit in.
Indeed, things do take an eerie turn early on when Eden and David reveal they’ve joined the titular group, The Invitation. Eden discovered them in Mexico, and it’s where she met David, and it’s through the group, she explains, that she has learned that all of life’s pains are just chemical reactions and that we can be free of them if we choose to be. And more chillingly, she says that death is nothing to be afraid of. Eden and David try their best to make their friends understand, and when that fails, everyone just turns back to enjoying themselves and catching up. Or so it seems. Will still believes something is very wrong, and as each moment goes by, he mentally unravels, getting more paranoid just as it seems everyone is becoming more relaxed getting to know Eden all over again.
To say anything more would be to ruin the fun of “The Invitation,” with the movie precisely tuned to develop as a slow burn story, before building to a highly satisfying, explosive payoff. But a big hat tip needs to go to screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (“Crazy/Beautiful,” “Clash Of The Titans,” “Ride Along“), who — opening scene aside — stage the movie completely inside Eden and David’s immaculate home. Single setting films often feel like they’re straining to continually meet the concept, or don’t have enough substance to sustain the location, but with a wide ensemble of players, very careful and considered attention to character and motivation, “The Invitation” has an usual amount of depth for this kind of genre film. These aren’t just characters caught in the machinations of quirky script, instead, you can become invested in their outcome, understand what drives them, and so when things truly take an unexpected turn, it feels organic rather than manufactured. There is never a moment where you don’t believe someone just doesn’t get up and leave a situation tinged at the edges by something weird and possibly dangerous — and in fact, one character does just that. But why the others stay, is never in question.
“This is L.A.,” someone explains to Will, when he privately wonders about Eden and David’s potentially sinister intentions, based on the way they’ve been acting. And the city of angels is definitely filled with personalities, individuals whose allegiance to this following or that group allows them a strain of socially acceptable eccentricity. However, what happens when those quirks are hidden behind wealth and a stew of philosophical mumbo jumbo, and curdle into something frightening? That’s the question “The Invitation” would like you to RSVP for an answer. And the explanation is that sometimes an emotional scar that’s scrubbed clean on the surface festers with greater consequence deep inside. When it’s unleashed, not even your incense scented haikus about life’s wonder will prepare you for the madness that comes. [B]