Characters in Karyn Kusama's The Invitation often confuse mercy with mercilessness. Killing a wounded animal may be acceptable, but finishing off a wounded madman that's made your life a living hell? That's another thing altogether. Many of the Los Angelenos that attend the film's central dinner party have had their souls whittled away by trauma and loss. Part of the film's fun lies in trying to separate the vulnerable from the irredeemable, a task that is quite a bit more difficult than one would initially expect.
Driving along a desolate road in the Hollywood hills, young couple Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) accidently run over a coyote, leaving it crippled and barely breathing. Their ugly experience becomes a point of conversation upon arriving at the posh hillside home of Will's ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her slick new husband David (Michiel Huisman), who have rounded up all of their mutual friends for a casual evening of food, drinks and catching up. The hosts themselves have been mysteriously off the grid at a "retreat" in Mexico for two years.
Friendly quips between old pals quickly turns sour when feelings of regret and betrayal come to the forefront. The root of Will and Eden's pain lies in the violent death of their son many years before. Kusama expertly avoids using this as an overt dramatic instigator, instead focusing on how Eden's inability to cope has led her down a more fundamental path than Will, who has instead entered a state of isolated denial.
Strangely, Eden and David have invited two of their friends from their time south of the border, a cackling pixie nightmare girl (Lindsay Burdge) and a hulking soft-spoken lug named Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). Will immediately grows suspicious of them both, and the entire affair in general. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi's slippery script wiggles out of the usual horror movie traps, resisting the urge to show too much. Instead, it conjures up an increasing sense of dread out of the smallest details and simplest of images.
Kusama, a talented director whose been relegated to mostly television work since bombing with Jennifer's Body in 2009, infuses The Invitation with the same authorial confidence that marked her debut film Girlfight. Each sequence within the expansive house unfolds quietly but not without menace. Memories from Will's previous life in the house come raging back in the form of lucid and splintered flashbacks.
Much of the film's plot revolves around the process of grieving, specifically how someone moves on from trauma, or what Will describes as "a scream trapped inside of me." Coping mechanisms come in weapons of all shapes and sizes, and when The Invitation eventually does paint the mid-century modern walls red, it's built up enough emotional heft to make it hurt.
Scarily, the warped philosophical ramblings that Eden, David and Pruitt embody begin to resonate with others, even as Will's distrust for them grows. This might be an instance of polite dinner guests humoring their hosts, but Kusama sees it as just another example of people avoiding the discomfort that's staring them in the face. That's what makes The Invitation so often scary; destructive ideologies can worm their way into any person's brain if they are wrapped in the perfect package. It's how cult leaders have convinced their followers to murder and maim in the name of their beliefs.
If Charles Manson ever got the chance to view The Invitation, which opens Friday, April 22, at the Digital Gym Cinema in North Park, he might find it a delightful and ambitious origin story about mass redemption. To those of us living in the real world and lacking psychopathic tendencies, it's a diabolical reminder of the great lengths traumatized people will go to feel at peace again. The body count they incur is simply a means to an end.