In today’s anything-goes cinema, when filmmakers can explicitly show just about anything — beheadings, decapitations, Russell Crowe singing — it’s cool to see a director who understands the power of restraint.
Karyn Kusama built a buzz with indie hit “Girlfight,” then worked with two studios on a couple films that bombed — “Aeon Flux,” a misfire with Charlize Theron, and “Jennifer’s Body,” a teen-horror film written by Diablo Cody that went off the rails.
With “The Invitation,” Kusama gets back on track with a slow-burn movie that holds everything back and keeps holding some more. Tension builds in deliciously unsettling, nerve-jangling ways until the last 10 minutes or so — and the getting there is worth it, especially a genuinely haunting, brilliantly composed final shot that’ll stay with you.
Before reaching its shocking end, “The Invitation” explores coping with grief and questions of friendship and spirituality in ways that feel honest and true for each character, except you’re never quite sure whom to believe.
The entire film is set at posh Hollywood Hills home of David (Michiel Huisman) and Eden, (Tammy Blanchard), a couple that disappeared to Mexico for a couple years, leaving friends confused and bewildered.
After returning, they issue a dinner invitation to those friends, including Will (Logan Marshall-Green) — Eden’s ex — and his new girlfriend.
Early on, we learn Will and Eden’s relationship went south after they lost a son; they lived in that same house. Will is bottled up, aloof, angry and struggling with internal grief.
Eden dealt with her pain with pills and suffered a breakdown before she and her new love disappeared to Mexico.
At the party, the guests — and especially Will — are shocked to see the hosts behave so happily; they profess they’re at peace. Eden says she’s moved on.
During the course of the party, however, Will senses all is not right. Doors are locked. Phone service is unavailable. And two guests whom the hosts met while in Mexico seem more than a little strange, too.
Kusama ratchets up the tension by making us wonder if Will is paranoid or if Eden and David do have some hidden agenda — and I don’t mean pushing Tupperware or Amway. The presence of actor John Carroll Lynch — last seen as a murderous clown in “American Horror Story” — gives the night an especially creepy feel. He plays one of the hosts’ new friends.
Marshall-Green is superb as Will, making us simultaneously believe and doubt him, yet pull for him, too. Huisman stands out, keeping his motives hidden.
Theodore Shapiro’s unsettling score works wonders, while Kusama masterfully escalates the dread until it’s palpable, then snaps in a finale you’ll want to talk about afterward.