I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Jared McMillan // Film Critic
The most compelling mysteries or thrillers all have to do with something close to home. Whether it revolve around an actual home being invaded or a family or circle of friends in imminent danger, it’s something we as an audience will immediately identify with while we watch. Nothing will get our attention more than something that’s normally safe becoming unsafe and dangerous.
Once that connection is made, it is the job of the director to make sure that the film doesn’t deviate from its essence. For example, most home invasion movies will hook us in immediately at the point of invasion. However, as the narrative progresses, it is up to those behind the camera to make sure that plot points aren’t so outlandish that it takes the audience further away from that core fear.
In Karyn Kusama’s THE INVITATION, we have a group of friends that are brought together for a dinner party, only to find out through our protagonist that something is slightly off. While most thrillers will give us this feeling from the outset, what THE INVITATION does is make sure that the viewer doesn’t know if the party is off, or if it’s just our main character’s paranoia.
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) gets invited to a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi). However, the hosts are Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman), who she left Will for two years ago. Not only that, but both Will and Eden have dealt with the loss of their son in this time span. Also, the party is at Will’s old house that Eden still owns.
As the party gets underway, old friends reunite as it becomes clear that they all haven’t seen each other in quite some time. But they’re all grateful to be reunited, until David’s outsider friends, Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch, who is the reigning king of, “oh, this is not gonna end well”) and Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) show up to join the party.
Will is feeling unsafe because of a tragedy that still haunts him, so being in his old home has made him uneasy, to say the least. As the party unfolds, and more information comes to light about his ex-wife and her friends, it’s hard to say what the audience should worry about more: Will coming unhinged at just mere kookiness, or if this kookiness is something darker.
There is a lot to admire and enjoy about THE INVITATION, and it starts with the tension that seeps further into your skin as the movie unfolds. The fact that we have a divorced couple with new loves, a tragedy that Will can’t move on from, and outsiders to a close-knit group of friends gives us a solid foundation for our imagination. Kusama and her writers know that, because of this foundation, they have a lot to play with for manipulating our emotions. That’s what thrillers are supposed to do: manipulate the audience into guessing and reaction.
This manipulation is heightened by the fantastic ambience provided, both on-camera and out of frame. Kusama’s direction keeps the focus on Will, so the camera shifts in his perspective. As there is a moment of clarity, the frame comes into focus. When he is in thought, the conversation around him is muted. This increases as the party goes on, and he feels he’s onto something. As the viewer zigs with Will though, the narrative zags and you start to feel as paranoid as he does. Scenes are merely lit by the lighting source provided in the setting, so the addition of shadows in certain moments only add to the insecurity. Cinematographer Bobby Shore plays with the setting provided, a new-age Hollywood mansion whose aesthetics feel both luxurious and dark.
However, while what happens on camera gives the impression of something unstable, the addition of Theodore Shapiro’s score grounds us in the unsettling. Screeching strings enhance the discomfort that this dinner party is out of the ordinary somehow, but it never reaches a volume to overdramatize particular scenes.
If there needs to be any tweaking, it would be in the development of certain characters, but the audience only need be as invested as Will is in them. Suffice to say that Kira is definitely there for Will, but there’s not much else we get to know about her. She becomes more involved as Will starts to become more introverted, but the story could’ve brought her in a little closer to make her less of an accessory.
That being said, THE INVITATION is one of the best thrillers of the year, and one of the best films of the year so far. If you’re looking for an unsettling mystery that elicits a jaw-dropping reaction as the truth unfolds, look no further. Have fun being on the edge of your seat.
THE INVITATION opens in select theaters today, and is available to stream On Demand.