Parties are meant to be a celebratory time but as Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) head up the Hollywood Hills en route to a dinner party, there’s a sense of foreboding in the air—and not just because Will has to mercy-kill the coyote he’s just run over. They’re attending a dinner party at the home where Will used to live, before the death of a child permanently severed his relationship with his wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard), who has since remarried. This party is an attempt to reassemble the old gang, as if they can just pick up where they left off, as though everything hasn’t been horribly, irreparably damaged. Will is still depressed and cagey, but Eden and her handsome new husband David (Michael Huisman) have a preternatural sense of calm and peace about them. Turns out, they’ve recently returned from a retreat, which eventually reveals itself to be more like a cult—participants are encouraged to embrace death as a wonderful, spiritual release.
One of the great tensions of the film, masterfully directed by Karyn Kusama, is the attempt by the guests—the kind of well-heeled thirtysomethings who appreciate a good bottle of Bordeaux—to normalize things, to pretend that everything isn’t awful. (We get a strong sense of how lively and fun those dinner parties used to be—before it all went to hell.) But to Will, who is haunted by images of his young son and happier times with Eden, the house has literally become a waking nightmare. And then Will starts to suspect that something more menacing than an awkward dinner party is afoot.
Will, of course, is the classically unreliable narrator. He’s a recovering addict, sleepwalking through life. But it’s not entirely in his imagination—things are weird. Eden and David have invited two old friends from the retreat—one, a kind of freaky flower child, the other, an imposing man with hollow eyes—and they feel like interlopers. Also, curiously, one of the invited guests has mysteriously never shown up. And why has David insisted on locking all the doors?
So this is the deliciously nasty game that Kusama is playing with us: Is Will imagining things? Has he internalized his grief so much he’s gone mad? Or are the guests really in danger? In short, is this a film about grief masquerading as a horror film—or vice versa?
The Invitation is now streaming on Netflix