Samuel Brace on The Invitation, and why it’s the best film of the year so far…
2016 has been pretty bad for movies, guys. We are halfway through the year and there is next to nothing to shout about. I would even go as far as saying it’s shaping up to be worse than last year. Movies/films aren’t what they used to be, for this there is no doubt. And this saddens me and upsets me but this is just the way the culture is going, a lot of the talent has moved over to TV or is quickly snapped up for the next Marvel sequel. It’s all very disheartening. But is there anything out there worth talking about? Well, yeah, but you have to look hard, and depressingly, you have to look past nationwide releases to do so. A lot of the best independent movies can be found on VOD right now, and one of those movies is the delightfully grim The Invitation.
The Invitation isn’t a great film, but it is easily one of the best films of the year. It’s a film about a group of LA dwellers who gather together after years apart for a dinner party at a lavish house in the hills overlooking the city. It’s a horror thriller, and a beautifully cinematic one. It’s unnerving and deliberate and lets you know straight away that things are going to get very bad for these characters, that where this journey is heading isn’t going to be pleasant. The Invitation, directed by Karyn Kusama, is a film about feelings, and what to do with them, where to put them when they hurt, and if they are something any of us should care about. The movie, rather refreshingly, concludes that the answer is no.
The message of The Invitation, relayed to us over and over, is that pain is entirely optional. You see, it turns out that the two hosts of the party have been inducted into a cult, revealed to us by rather creepy video that shows a man watch a sickly woman die, reassuring her that her pain will soon be gone. What these people try to achieve is a removal from said feelings, explaining that they don’t do anyone any good. The ideas presented in this film are pertinent ones, Hollywood and culture in general is obsessed with feelings, with victims, with how everyone feels about everything, that we all should care because god forbid someone should get offended. Culture, spearheaded by the movie industry, has tried to convince us that we are all victims, that we need protecting and that our emotions are more important than what is actually going on. Victims, focus on their emotions, their pain, the message in The Invitation is that this pain means nothing, so just get on with it.
Before the night plummets into violence and chaos, there’s a scene where one of the friends slaps the others for an innocuous comment, moments later, the incident is forgotten, the pain, the feelings don’t matter, it’s not important here, and this perfectly illustrates the theme of Kusama’s film. Things may be bad, people may be sad, but who cares, get over it, let’s have a drink and talk about anything else. Any talking of feelings in this film makes everyone feel uncomfortable, and it makes the audience uncomfortable too, the way the movie is staged and the environment in which it is presented, makes it seem cringy and not appropriate. The answer everyone has to an uncomfortable situation in The Invitation is to get a drink. Talking about things won’t help anyone here. No one is moaning, bad things have obviously happened in the past — alluded to us by off the cuff remarks, tensions between characters and ambiguous flashbacks — but no one wants to talk about it. These topics are brushed away, how characters feel about events, people, it’s not relevant. It becomes relevant later on in the film, once emotions begin to surface and the point of the entire evening comes to the surface, but it’s not so people can feel good about themselves and reclaim their lives from the people that have hurt them, it’s only so these awful things that we feel inside of us can be extinguished once and for all.
About thirty minutes into the film’s one hundred and forty minute running time, the group sit around in the living room, wine in their hands, and they watch the video about the cult, where people are talking about feelings etc, and the cheesiness of the situation starts to permeate the viewing experience, all of a sudden people are talking about what they feel, not ignoring it like every other character had up until this moment. But what the video is trying to teach its viewers is not to harbour bad feelings, just to get on with it, and to not drudge up their despair to elicit sympathy. The message here is actually quite the opposite. “Don’t cry, there is no darkness”, the cult’s leader says to the dying woman.
The majority of the group reject the video, calling it too heavy and inappropriate for a dinner party. They don’t get it, they’d rather drink and laugh and talk about how great everybody looks after all these years. Their hosts try and explain, to bring them around to their way of life, and to how their pain once caused them to be clichés, annoying whiney slaves to all the bad things that have happened to them, but it’s all over now, because thanks to their new spirituality, they are free from grief. They aren’t victims anymore, and no one needs to be afraid. This is not a film about victims. There are casualties, people get hurt, but no one here is looking for sympathy. Even Will, the film’s lead, plagued by guilt and sadness about his past, doesn’t want peoples help. He just wants to forget, to be alone with his misery. The cult would want him to move on; Will has no interest in that. The real world would want him to embrace his sadness and let it become who he is, to play it up. The film itself however, rejects Hollywood’s victimhood culture. “We’ve all been through horrible things” a character says. “But those things don’t have to define us” – a perfect statement on what culture should be if I’ve ever heard one.
Will doesn’t want to talk about what happened in the past, he just wants to move on. Eden, his ex wife and who his hosting the event, takes a different approach to the misery they shared. She will admit what happened but explains how she, via the cult, cured herself from pain and fear and misery. Both Will and Eden are using different tactics to achieve the same goal – to not be a victim. It’s all about approach with The Invitation; about the wildly varying ways people deal with what’s bothering them. One of the guests, an outsider who only three of the group know, tells a story about how he killed his wife, but how he managed to move on, and get rid of those feelings that haunted him afterward. “Looking ahead and destroying that part of me” is how he describes it, eliminating the part of people that dwells on what makes them victims. This man isn’t a victim, he got drunk and hit his wife, killing her, because of an emotional argument. This is where we get the extremes. One person might avoid an emotion by walking away, or having a drink, someone else might kill the source of that emotion. The film uses this contrast effectively.
Shortly after the video, and once everyone has had another drink, and once they’ve laughed at how uncomfortable everything is becoming — because who wants to about this stuff — they play a game called ‘I want’, where you tell the group something that you want to happen or to that you want to say. It starts off with something silly like “I want cocaine” and then gets more and more emotional until talk of death and misery ensues. But the group reject it, and move on to more material things, like “I want to kiss so and so”, and “I want a blow job”. These people, the majority, don’t want to be saved or to talk about what they feel. They want to enjoy themselves because sadness makes them sad. Someone even leaves the party because it’s uncomfortable. She doesn’t want anything to do with this. She probably fled because she didn’t want her feelings to be hurt, not because they didn’t matter, but because they were too precious — How millennial.
Will’s reaction, obviously feeling uncomfortable, is to stay and just keep others at bay, to not give in to the love fest, to not unburden himself with his despair. “You don’t know me. You can’t” he tells his host. What is so unfortunately unique about this film, is that none of these characters are asking for our sympathy. It doesn’t matter how the characters feel, and it doesn’t matter how we feel about them. Will’s pain, something he struggles to keep inside of him, is constantly pushed away, not just by him, but also by other things. Like the man’s story about killing his wife, the friend leaving the party, the door being suspiciously locked, a girl trying to fuck him, and their friend Troy not arriving at the party, even though a voice message suggested he was there. The film is trying to tell us that what happened to Will isn’t as important as what is going on in the present. That playing the victim, and going after our sympathy, isn’t pertinent. And when Will finally explodes, telling his ex-wife that it matters that their son died, that she is in denial, it’s not because he wants to get it out in the open, it’s because her denial is part of a larger plot to deceive the whole group. “Our son died”, he says, then a few lines later, “Where is Troy?” It all gets very heavy, but of course Troy eventually turns up. He’s fine, and his timely arrival makes fun of the high intensity emotion that just preceded it. ‘Look how silly all this emotion is’ the film is saying.
Will’s new girlfriend tries to convince him that he isn’t at fault, that his son wasn’t victim to his carelessness, that a bad thing happened, and no one is to blame. But by this point in the film, things are far too difficult for Will. He rejects her help. He can’t be helped, but instead of going home, to be alone, he further embroils himself in the sinister plot he believes his hosts to be committing. He comes to believe that they are planning to kill everyone here, to take part in a ritual in order to pass on from pain and emotion to a better place. Will has no intention of going to a better place. If anything, he is starting to think of himself and everyone else as the victim. He doesn’t want to escape his pain. No one should be able to. Will starts becoming a vessel for 2016 thinking, a human representation of that ideology.
It turns out that Will is of course right. There is a plot and people start dying. Their hosts have moved on from their pain and have decided everyone else needs to as well. And as we start to nervously giggle at how terrible things are getting, we start to realise that none of this matters. Eight out of ten characters we know nothing about, they mean nothing to us, the deaths are just awful things that happen. This allows us to just enjoy the violence and the horror and not to care about who is prey to who, or who should be the one to survive the ordeal, because the situation is just fucked up, and there can be no good result for anyone of these characters.
The film finishes with a final image that can’t fail to disturb, a reveal that the incident at the house wasn’t isolated, that the cult is actually more of a murder suicide pact and what happened to Will and his friends is happening to other households all across the valley. It’s incredibly sinister but it’s also very detached. We don’t look at the tears in these characters eyes and feel any real empathy for them, as the feelings of these characters don’t matter, because that’s what the movie has told us from the very beginning. It’s pretty cool and I enjoyed the lack of resolution to be found at the films exit. Will is still a mess and he will probably stay that way forever. He’s not angry at his friends, shit is just bad and we will see what happens next. The Invitation isn’t a perfect movie but it’s certainly engrossing and compelling from start to finish, and contains a message that you won’t likely find anywhere else in 2016. I hope this year gets better; I have my eye on a few films in the months to come, but this little feature, one that I wish I had seen in a cinema and not on my laptop, is by far the best so far. Give it a watch, but don’t expect it to care how you feel.