There’s nothing conceptually original about The Invitation. A dinner party in a swanky mansion that slowly spirals out of control has formed the backbone of many classic works of literature, as well as countless trashy horror thrillers. While The Invitation asks some interesting philosophical questions about depression and coping with loss, it’s lacking a suitable enough bite to be worthy of the lengthy buildup that dominates the film.
Most thrillers thrive by slowly drip-feeding clues to the viewer as the bigger picture steadily develops. While slow camera pans and eerie, sombre music create an unsettling atmosphere, too often The Invitation is all about the teasing but rarely about actually satisfying its audience. In the final third answers do finally flow, but the ultimate revelation is disappointingly basic and lacks the payoff to warrant the extremely slow hour that comes before the finale.
The opening thirty minutes are as you’d expect from the ‘dinner party from hell’ subgenre: polite chitchat between characters, small indications that something’s amiss, and a hell of a lot of hinting at the traumatic past of the lead characters. When party hosts Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and David (Michiel Huisman) reveal their new found perspective on life thanks to a few months spent in a Mexican cult, things start to get a little more interesting, though director Karyn Kusama quickly curbs this and reverts The Invitation back to its forte of painfully slow tension-building.
Logan Marshall-Green portrays Will, a man haunted by his past and visibly uncomfortable with the idea of spending an evening with his ex-wife and her new husband. The almost competitive alpha dog dynamic between Will and David dominates the first act as both men size each other up. Michiel Huisman really shines in these scenes as that guy who you just have to hate, even though he’s technically not done anything wrong. It’s a shame that there isn’t a little more chemistry between Eden and Will, because it’s quite hard to buy them as former husband and wife which stops a few emotionally charged moments from having the intended impact.
There’s a wealth of secondary characters, from Will’s new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to the loud mouth comic relief Ben (Jay Larson)— another flaw in a film with a few too many to overlook. The Invitation is overstuffed with needless background characters with a party of thirteen at the dinner table. The narrative would have been better served with half that number. Because of the sizable cast over two thirds of the characters lack suitable enough development for the audience to connect with them or even have a passing interest in their fate.
Though The Invitation may seem pretentious when it veers into its more thoughtful themes, the film does have some genuinely interesting things to say. Will and Eden are both struggling to deal with a traumatic event from their past that wrecked their marriage and broke them as individuals. Weighing their divergent attempts to move on gives the film a small bit of subtext to dig into. In fact this more psychological aspect of the film takes up more of the running time than anything else. Rather than a horror thriller, The Invitation could have perhaps been stronger as a drama about dealing with depression and grief.
When things go south in the film’s final act, the pace quickly picks up and there’s an exhilarating sense of unpredictability, even if what does eventually transpire is fairly formulaic. However the price of admission is a very slow establishing hour. The Invitation will most definitely not be to everyone’s taste, as the pacing frequently slows to a crawl. Slogging through the many slower sections to get to the climax is a tall order, because truthfully it’s not really worth the effort.
The Invitation may appear to be an extremely cliché horror thriller, but it takes a route that few films in the genre choose. Unfortunately it’s a route as ill-advised as walking down a dark country lane in the dead of night. Truly excellent thrillers are all about the build-up and not the release, and The Invitation fails to really nail either.