I recently had the chance to watch Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, and it was a more interesting experience than most of my film viewings thanks to the way I was introduced to it. I was browsing through a reddit thread recommending films that are at their best when nothing is known about them going in, and Kusama’s latest was the most recommended by a fair margin. Naturally, I went in blind, and the experience was greatly improved because of it. Of course, I can’t say that and then go on to spoil what makes the movie great for anyone reading this. If you haven’t seen the movie yet stop reading right here and go watch it. I recommend the film wholeheartedly, and it will still be great if you know a bit about it going in, but do yourself a favor and watch it without any prior knowledge.
Recently, I praised Aronofsky’s ability to craft and command an atmosphere within his films that envelops the viewer completely. This is largely due to his unwavering pacing and his eye for aesthetics. Kusama has a similar talent. She has a penchant for building dread and tension even in situations where there is no obvious justification, which is certainly a good thing in a film that has all of its action packed into the last fourth of its runtime. It’s the definition of a slow burn, getting you on the edge of your seat and then forcing you back into it with periodic uneasy breaks from the tension, a quiet truce with what you’re almost certain will explode at any moment. For much of the film I was convinced that it was possible that the tension would just never explode, that the surprise everybody on reddit was talking about is that there IS nothing wrong with the dinner party. This would have been a bold move on Kusama’s part, but ultimately a letdown. Building up tension and never allowing it to release may be an interesting statement for a storyteller to make, but that doesn’t make it good storytelling.
I did feel that the “side quest” mystery of discovering what tragedy Will and Eden had in their past was a bit contrived and unnecessary. I believe giving viewers information that characters don’t have can create for an interesting experience, but the other way around just makes viewers feel excluded and frustrated. Plenty of tension is already created throughout the course of the film with the eerie and unsettling vibe of the dinner party. Kusama needs to let us focus squarely on this tension, allow it to turn over in our minds and makes us uncomfortable, and keep us occupied until it finally erupts. Distracting us from it by withholding information about Will’s past muddles the experience and makes it a bit less focused, an annoyance that draws our attention away from the main event. It’s a minor issue that does not detract much from the overall experience, but it is an issue nonetheless.