Most marriages do not survive the death of a child. The tragedy of such an intense and intimate grief has a way of pulling people in different directions, creating an unbridgeable distance between them. Director Karyn Kusama explores this sad reality, as well as how grief can drive us into dark places where the people we once were have joined the dearly departed, leaving behind walking ghosts of our former selves. Sometimes, that person we become is something far darker and destructive than we ever could have imagine during happier times, and the horror of our own suffering becomes the horror of those around us who witness our transformation. Such is the territory of The Invitation.
The story begins as Will and his girlfriend Kira head to a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills, hosted by Will’s ex-wife Eden and her new husband David. Will and Eden broke up after their toddler son, Ty, died accidentally. Since then, we see that Will has descended far into a well of his own sadness and is only now just beginning to climb out. Eden, on the other hand, seems strangely effervescent with her perpetually smiling husband, even euphoric. It immediately puts Will off, and we can understand why, even after meeting her for the first time. The rest of Will and Eden’s circle of friends are at the party as well as a person or two seemingly known only to Eden and David. The evening progresses with awkward party games that are all about trying to break the thick ice in the room; everyone knows how and why Will and Eden broke up, and nothing anybody says is going to make that go away. Or will it? Just as all of the weird behavior gets Will thinking that maybe the hosts have sinister intentions for them all, David announces that the point of the party was to introduce everyone to a cultish philosophy called the Invitation that is meant to rid oneself of all of their emotional pain. It’s why he and Eden seem so happy. And it explains why they would invite their friends who are all carrying the memories of Ty’s death. But Will still isn’t convinced. Either he’s losing his damned mind, or his ex and her husband are trying to trick everybody into some kind of death cult. It can’t be both.
This is a slow-burning thriller that takes its time in establishing its characters and the tensions between them before going back and looking at the days before the tragedy and the circumstances surrounding Ty’s death. The more we get to observe Eden and David’s strange dinner party, the more we see a group of people who are still collectively grieving the loss of one of their own, for they all loved Ty in their own way. But they are also grieving their loss of their collective self. Before Ty died, Will and Eden’s circle of friends were close, and it wasn’t just Will and Eden’s marriage that disintegrated in the months following Ty’s demise.
This sense of loss and the weight of suffering pervades every moment of this film. Everybody in it is either feeling bad for Will or just feeling bad, and we can see how since nobody here has really dealt with their pain, their pain is beginning to exhibit itself in strange ways. Nobody is who they used to be, and for as freaky as Eden and David’s cultish approach to that reality may be, we can appreciate why they chose it. Out of everybody in the room, they’re the only ones acknowledging the source of their discomfort, while everyone else is either hiding from it or trying to invent new ways of pretending it’s not there.
But as we watch Will’s discomfort turn into a sharpening sense that something is seriously wrong with this party, the story ratchets things up accordingly. Eventually, tensions rise to a breaking point, and either Will is going to snap or somebody else at the party is, and when that happens, we imagine that something terrible will result. And somebody does snap. And something terrible does result. Something very, very terrible.
The final act of the movie becomes a fairly straightforward exercise in thriller action that works well enough to capitalize on all of the investment we made in these characters and their drama in the movie’s first two acts. There is a lot of running and chasing. There is unexpected bloodshed and sudden, graphic violence. There is an entire house suddenly turned into a killing ground. There is no prospect that anybody from the outside is going to show up and settle things down. And there is a cast of characters that in short order becomes a lot smaller. But as good as it all is, none of it ever quite matches the quietly mounting dread that fills the first two acts, as we increasingly understand that the dinner party is not what it seems, and neither are all of its guests. We’re relieved to finally understand what is out of whack here and to see it all come to resolution, but this is a story that builds itself up so well that it almost becomes one of those presents that is so good you dare not open it because what’s inside could never live up to the sheer promise of what it could be.
The moment of truth comes near the end, when Will and Eden finally open up about Ty, although by then it’s far too late to do anybody any good. We hear sirens in the background, as we have been conditioned to expect at the end of a bloody thriller, but suddenly we realize they aren’t meant for our characters. And they aren’t just background noise. They are part of an ending that provides a huge and unexpected payoff that rewards us richly for sticking with a slow and subtle tale.