IF YOU HATE awkward dinner parties, the setting of The Invitation alone will send you off the deep end. Nearly the entirety of the new film directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Aeon Flux, Jennifer's Body) takes place inside the gleaming, modern surfaces of a fancy house in the Hollywood Hills. There, a group of friends (?) have been summoned to meet over conspicuously expensive bottles of wine—and a glacially meted out set-up to inevitable disaster.
Even if you skipped the film's trailer—which is punctuated by screams—the subtext of violence is established in Invitation's very first scene, when the protagonist, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) mercy-kills a coyote with a tire iron en route to dinner. Other information comes in fits and starts, with the filmmakers interchanging suspense with a gradual rollout of the obvious—spooning out each foreseeable revelation over a maddening squanderance of time.
This is where character building should come in, making all the while-you-wait chitchat worthy of a big screen. Marshall-Green is the most natural player, warily taking in the house that used to be his (he and the party's host are divorced), and reliving flashes of family tragedy (like nearly everything in The Invitation, you'll have foreseen the gist long before it's verbalized). Most of the rest of the cast is somewhat un-compelling, playing either too weird or too normal: The lady of the house, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), opens the door in a white robe of a dress, immediately telegraphing cultish leanings. But as we learn more about the philosophy she shares with her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman), and friends Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch, whose performance is another highlight) and Sadie (Lindsay Burdge, her character bearing one of the world's most cult-associated names), it sounds like the average blenderful of healing/grieving mumbo jumbo dashed with a whiff of sex magick.
The rest of the guests are a jovial if uninspiring group of friends who—for reasons never made explicitly clear—haven't been together in a long while. Their reactions to the evening's unusual moments (like when Eden and David play them a cult-initiation film in which a woman dies of illness onscreen) are mostly blasé, in contrast to Will's mounting suspicions as to why they've been invited in the first place. There are lots of eye-rolling comments about how all this woo-woo involvement is typical of L.A., and The Invitation itself seems to thrive rather pointlessly on those stereotypes—to the extent that it has very little novelty to offer.
On the other hand, Kusama's direction demonstrates a commendable degree of prowess, weaving its way through an endless cocktail hour that could have easily read as visually flat. The blocking and the choreography of characters as they get up to freshen drinks, or take a moment in the kitchen or by the pool, is fluid and dynamic, and helps retain an element of mystery in the house itself. One never really understands the geography of this setting—was that a home theater that appeared during the final climax?—just as one is meant to second-guess the motives of the people onscreen. Elsewhere, the attractive environment carries uneasy clues, like scalloped bars over the windows, doors that lock from the inside, a lack of cell reception or landline, and the red glow of a lantern on the lawn.
The Invitation doesn't kick into decisive action until about 15 minutes before credits roll. When that finally does happen, it's nail-biting, horrific, tragic yet satisfying, and boasts a final, long-delayed twist that colors the preceding bundle of tropes with something unanticipated. But however deftly executed the climax may be, for many the payoff won't be enough to justify the extent of the preamble.