When The Invitation, the latest from director Karyn Kusama, begins; it feels familiar. It starts with the same premise many films of the thriller variety do, with a mysterious dinner party with a mysterious backstory and a mysterious group of attendees. To be honest, the first act feels especially wooden and awkward, as if we’re in a guarded and stilted recreation of the same premise we’ve seen countless times before. But then the act split between act one and act two happens and we, as an audience, realize that this woodenness and coldness was completely intentional and calculated, that it was a narrative false floor to pull out from under us. That is when The Invitation becomes special.
Humans are the strangest of animals in the sense that we understand our mortality and are forced to process it. While it is arguable other animals understand death and have their own grieving process, the fear of death and the fight against it seems a wholly human experience. This is the premise that The Invitation concerns itself with. With a masterful mixture of casual dinner conversation mixed with moments of dread and general eeriness, The Invitation manages to capture the emotional dizziness of trying to process and analyze death and loss.
The general synopsis is listed as “While attending a dinner party at his former home, a man thinks his ex-wife and her new husband have sinister intentions for their guests.” Arguably, though, there is a deeper allegory within the story that directly examines how we, as a species, deal with grief and loss.
This allegory, seems to deal with three groups: The religious, the worldly, and the unaffiliated group in-between. The hosts of the party represents religion, the protagonist guest represents the worldly, and the other guests seem to represent the middle, the group who have no affiliation but find themselves being pulled in two separate directions by the two aforementioned groups.
Our worldly protagonist prefers to deal with grief and embrace it. It is real, it is a tactile thing that he lives with and handles on a daily basis. Our religious hosts, however, see death as a celebration of the deceased ascension into the afterlife. The third unaffiliated party prefers not to think about such things, choosing to spend their time with jokes and drinking.
To examine further would shift this from review to full-on analysis, so suffice it to say that the message of the film manages to be tense and emotionally engaging. There is a real heart to this film that separates it from a single layer thriller. There are real human questions being asked and explored within the relatively short running time of The Invitation, and these questions elevate this film from being a simple thriller and allows it to be something far heftier in its art.
Most importantly, The Invitation is entertaining. With all its allegory, layered plot, and tension it would be easy for the film to fall into ruin under its own weight. Kusama and company, however, manage to not only avoid this, but use this weight to make The Invitation stronger and more engaging than the seemingly familiar premise introduced in the beginning would have one believe possible.