Overview: A man is invited to a dinner party at his ex-wife’s house, but he begins to suspect dark and ulterior motives at the heart of the gathering. Drafthouse Films; 2015; NR; 99 minutes.

Mercy Killing: In the film’s opening minutes, the metaphor at the center of The Invitation is constructed. We’re not yet aware of its full significance, or how it will play out with our characters. What we do know is that what we’re watching has some significance, even if we are unable to fully parse it out from the insignificant. When Will (Logan Marshall-Green) mercy-kills a coyote that lies injured and pinned under his car, we’re given two pieces of information that carry us through the film: 1.) Suffering is something that must be ended as quickly as possible, even if that means through methods of brutality, and 2.) Will has within him the ability to kill, and to do it purposefully and with little hesitation. This cold open frames the entire narrative, not only thematically but in its dual establishment of the significant and the insignificant as aspects that the audience is left to decipher as the film progresses, the setting changes, and our cast of characters grows.

You Carried It to This Place: The injury and murder of the coyote act as a kind of totemistic sign-post creating discomfort and heightened awareness early on, a presence that refuses to leave even as Will and his girlfriend enter the home of his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). Director Karyn Kusama and cinematographer Bobby Shore give the Hollywood Hills home a sense of containment untypical of LA McMansions, or of LA itself. Bathed in soft yellow lights, Eden’s home should create a sense of warmth and comfort, the perfect place for old friends to reconvene. But the hallways seem too narrow, the doors too numerous, and Kusama never lingers on one space for long, making the home’s layout disorienting.

This disorientation not only affects the audience, but also Will as he comes to realize the home he once called his is markedly different, and not in any way that’s immediately recognizable. The yellow lamp lights leave spaces of heavy shadow, creating a sense of sickness of and secret. Even the camaraderie of this diverse group of friends seems off. As Will makes his way through a series of reunions, we gain the understanding that part of this awkwardness comes from the fact that these people haven’t seen each other in two years, not since the death of Will and Eden’s son and the collapse of their marriage. It’s enough to make any situation tense, but there’s something more to these interactions, a forced calm that feels false and turns the familiar strange. Each of these characters are suffering in their own way, and holding something back…unless they aren’t. Will’s discomfort builds to paranoia and the flashbacks to his son and the life he once shared with his wife Eden begin to cast doubt on his mental state and his view of the people around him. Is he trapped amongst all of these fake smiles with fake friends, or are they trapped inside with a man whose ability to kill extends beyond mercy?

A Scream Trapped Inside: Will’s vulnerable position is deepened by the introduction of a new element in the second-half of the film: the titular Invitation. This new-age practice of learning to move on and create an environment of honesty doesn’t gel with Will’s unwillingness to move on from his son’s death. He sees Eden’s ability to turn away from grief as a source of madness, and the two strangers in her home as evidence of a deeper conspiracy at the heart of the Invitation. Roped into a game of “I Want” by David, Will is forced to watch as relationships in the house grow even more fragile as inhibitions are cast aside and the masks of false smiles are slowly pried off. Even in these moments of supposed camaraderie, Kusama never lets us slip into a place of comfort, and instead maintains a sense of stomach-gnawing tension that something awful could happen at any moment. But for Will, the most awful thing has already happened. He lost his child, and there’s nothing more terrifying than that. We feel the utter heartache of his state, and this coupled with the growing sense of dread creates a kind of horror that seeps into every action and glance shared between these characters. When the awfulness does come, we’re so invested in this situation and these characters that the horror extends beyond genre and tropes to become something more powerful and ultimately unsettling.

Overall: Part bottle-drama, part psychological and emotional assault, The Invitation examines the horror of friendship, desire, and the true cost of moving on. Aided by Kusama’s confident and skilled direction, screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi deliver the kind of tightly wound script that’s impossible not to envy. This isn’t just the kind of horror film that’s meant to be watched with baited breath and racing heart, it’s meant to be studied for the sheer brilliance of its craft and composition. The Invitation is top-tier modern horror and its final shot will leave you reeling not only because of its shock, but because of its honest foundation in the human spirit, which may be the most frightening place of all when broken.

Grade: A

Featured Image: Drafthouse Films