Director: Karyn Kusama
Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman
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Some way into The Invitation, the host of a dinner party is seen walking into the garden of his Hollywood hills home, and lighting a red lamp in the darkness. In the film’s nexus of meanings and associations, that lamp is a multivalent symbol whose conflicting significations – it is both meretricious siren call and stop sign – cut to the heart of the divisions on display. For even though it is set over one night and (mostly) in a single location, The Invitation accommodates broad polarities that represent the faultlines in America’s current ideological struggles between liberal laissez-faire and religious mania. Working from a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (who also scripted Aeon Flux for her), director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body) puts the ‘cult’ in culture wars, following Kevin Smith’s Red State (2011), Ti West’s The Sacrament (2013) and Riley Stearns’ Faults (2014) all the way to the centre of the USA’s entertainment capital.
Two years after his five-year-old son, Ty, died in a tragic accident and his wife, Eden (Blanchard), suicidal with grief, took off with her lover, David (Huisman), Will (Marshall-Green) has received an invitation to join Eden and David, now returned from Mexico, for a reunion dinner in their former home. Still mourning and deeply conflicted, Will heads over with his new partner, Kira (Corinealdi) – along the way accidentally hitting a coyote with his car and then ending its pain with a crowbar. Suffering, trauma and death are in the Los Angeles air, and the brooding Will, with his Manson-esque beard and distracted, watchful reserve, is a man who is hard to read. His feelings about returning from exile to the house and garden (of Eden!) where his once perfect life unraveled are inevitably ambivalent.
Eden, on the other hand, has found an odd inner peace with David, and as the couple and their two new friends, Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), try foisting upon their other guests the brand of happy-clappy, hippy-dippy enlightenment that they found together in Mexico, several of Will’s old friends are amused by, even attracted to, Eden’s new-found contentment. Will himself, however, whether suspicious or jealously resentful of Eden’s rapid recovery, sees only alarm bells. It is the ambiguity of that red lamp, casting its dim light over this long night of the chattering classes, as Will, and we with him, are not sure how to interpret the drama unfolding across the dinner table – a drama that is both deeply personal, and slyly political.
“This is LA,” says one of Will’s friends, excusing the hosts’ cultish convictions as just part of the landscape in a town that prides itself on multicultural inclusivity. Other guests are drawn to the generous hospitality on offer (the fine wine, drugs and sexual openness), or to the sense of renewed ‘family’ togetherness that they have all been missing since Ty’s death split them apart. Will’s only ally in scepticism, the academic Claire (Marieh Delfino), excuses herself and leaves when things get too hot. Will continues to doubt, but also – cripplingly – doubts himself.
From all these deftly handled tensions, rooted more in character than in action, there emerges a dialectic on the clash of faith-led fanaticism and secular non-intervention, as we see educated middle-class Americans responding to the potentially dangerous idiocy in their midst with easy-going acceptance, irony or flight, rather than the firm resistance that is warranted. The horrifying results are a red light for complacent viewers, from a nation where so many seem to have drunk the Kool Aid.
The Invitation is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.
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