Starting off a movie by having the main character accidentally run over a coyote and then clubbing the suffering animal to death in order to end its misery is not typically how a film tries to win over an audience. After all, moviegoers will show up in droves to watch people get pulverized, but cute and fuzzy animals… not so much. This is exactly how The Invitation opens, however, and by the end it becomes apparent that there is much meaning in what we see take place on that roadway.
But that’s for later. What the incident does initially is set up an uneasy feeling that something could go wrong at any minute. Not that our protagonist Will (Logan Marshall-Green) needs anything else to make him feel uncomfortable, mind you, considering that he and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are headed towards a posh Hollywood Hills dinner party hosted by Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). Will and Eden’s marriage, we soon discover, disintegrated after the death of their young son, a tragedy that Will still hasn’t fully come to terms with.
Eden, on the other hand, appears to have recovered from her own grief quite well after having mysteriously disappeared for a year with her new spouse. Perhaps too well, thinks Will, who grows more and more certain as the night goes on that something is seriously off about the whole gathering. This is due not only to Eden’s bizarre new behavior, but also to the presence of two odd strangers whom Eden has invited to the festivities. It is with the aid of these two that Eden and David finally reveal that they’ve spent the last twelve months in South America with The Invitation, a cult-like self-help group whose stated goal it is to help its members free themselves from all suffering.
Besides Will, none of the other party guests are overly concerned with this revelation, at least not until David plays them a video of members of The Invitation gathered around the bed of a terminally ill woman, cajoling her to release all pain and embrace the comfort of death. This is the final straw for Eden’s old friend Claire (Marieh Delfino), who decides it’s time to call it a night, much to the consternation of David who all but physically restrains Claire from leaving. David’s actions convince Will more than ever that something sinister is afoot, and yet every time he voices a concern, a perfectly reasonable explanation is offered. To everyone else in attendance, the angry and paranoid Will simply appears to be teetering on the edge of the nervous breakdown he has been staving off since his son’s death.
To the movie’s credit, even its viewers will be hard pressed to tell which side is really the crazy one until the final fifteen minutes. The Invitation is not a horror film in the traditional sense of an alternating roller coaster of build-ups and scares. Instead, it is one long, slow simmer from the initial car accident to the inevitable moment at the party when something has to give. And give it does, quickly and bloodily.
It’s an approach that could easily lapse into boredom, yet the direction by Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux, Jennifer’s Body) and the script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (Ride Along, R.I.P.D) manage to keep things tense and interesting throughout. It also helps immensely that the underlying theme of the movie is one that resonates in today’s world. Eden and David’s perspective is that of the secularist, that suffering is ultimately pointless and should be avoided at all costs. Better to be put out of your misery like some animal rather than to live in pain. Will’s take is more spiritual, that human suffering is different and can have meaning and purpose if we can just find the proper response to it. The viewer is left to decide which side is the more correct one, but in a fantastic final shot that elevates the film into true horror, The Invitation makes it clear that there are more people than we might want to imagine who share Eden and David’s philosophy rather than Will’s.