Wednesday 10 August 2016

On demand: "The Invitation"

You could take the fact Karyn Kusama has signed her name to only three films in the decade and a half since 2000's breakout indie Girlfight as a sign of rank institutional sexism, or that this filmmaker is uncommonly choosy about the scripts she takes on, or both. Either way, with The Invitation, Kusama pulls off an altogether more mature proposition than she did with 2009's cultish Jennifer's Body: this slowburn horror-thriller queers The Big Chill with Buñuel in its vision of a dinner-party reunion that goes lamentably awry. We arrive in alongside Will (Logan Marshall-Green), a beardy, brooding boho type, returning with his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to the spacious Hollywood Hills home he once shared, and attempted to raise a family in, with the New Agey Eden (Tammy Blanchard). Any understandable awkwardness is soon banished by the conviviality, the cosy setting and the free-flowing alcohol, but it soon becomes clear that one of the invitees has an agenda - and it doesn't involve sending everybody home with a doggy bag at the end of the night.

The exact details are probably best left unspoiled, but as Will and Kira investigate just how peculiar their fellow guests are, The Invitation starts to bear more than a passing resemblance to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, reshaped into the genre item some might have preferred that film to be. For the most part, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi's script is rooted not in action - which distinguishes The Invitation from the similar-sounding yet more commercially oriented slasher You're Next - but penetrating talk: words replace sharp knives in hushed sidebars and group games wherein the independence of some characters is tested against the dependency of others. What The Invitation soon shapes into is a parable of contemporary conformism, noting just how willing some folk are to go along with the wider flow in order to keep others happy and the mood upbeat. (Key line of dialogue, delivered just as our suspicions are mounting: "They're a little weird, but this is L.A. They're harmless.")

One of the reasons Kusama hasn't made more movies, you sense, is a reluctance to play the Tinseltown game that insists any independently minded filmmaker offset their personal projects against one or more of those movies or franchises that were forced upon us when the conglomerates got into the film biz in order to hike up their share price; there may, after all, be something pointed in the fact that when Will opens up the laptop that serves as a narrative Pandora's box, it glows with a very familiar logo. What she stages here does feel innately indie in that talky Nineties way, recalling a time before the sector got distracted in the search for cutesy crossover hits: though her production budget is evidently up on that of a film like 1995's The Last Supper, the drama is just as self-contained - one more from that thriving people-in-a-room genre, it's bypassed UK cinema screens to stream exclusively on Netflix - though elevated by a largely unfamiliar cast who bring new notes to the table.

Clearly, no good can come from any gathering that counts David Fincher's preferred Zodiac killer John Carroll Lynch among its guests, but Kusama also coaches Blanchard and Lindsay Burdge into giving two of the most unsettling female performances in recent memory, while Marshall-Green, allowed to be considerably more interesting here than he was in Prometheus, makes an extremely unusual point of identification: his Will often seems every bit as off as the situation we see him walking into. (Maybe that's just L.A. again.) Suffice to say the leavetaking will be unhappy, not to mention bloody, but Kusama ensures the film builds steadily in intensity and chill: she catches the moneyed isolation of the Hills, what might go on behind the locked doors of ivory towers, and how, in our need to belong, or to feel less guilty, alone or sad, more and more of us might be persuaded to go along with that. The company's great, but the view is rarely less than terrifying.

The Invitation is now streaming on Netflix. 

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