The Invitation (2015)

Longer version of piece published by Sight & Sound as part of coverage of the Cult programme at the London Film Festival 2015

A cult following is something that takes time to build, so calling a new film ‘cult’ involves a certain degree of crystal ball gazing and quixoticism – unless of course an actual cult forms part of its narrative texture, in which case the label inevitably fits. This is the case with The Invitation, the latest work from Karyn Kusama (Girl Fight, Jennifer’s Body), in which Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is invited with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to a dinner party in the house that he once shared with his wife – now ex – Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and their young son – now late – Ty. This opulently appointed home in the Hollywood Hills is still haunted with painful memories (glimpsed in impressionistic flashbacks), and the presence of so many old friends, most of whom were present at the party where Ty died, makes this a painful reunion for Will.

On the other hand, the once suicidal Eden now seems preternaturally happy, and with the help of new husband David (Michiel Huisman), and two new friends – hippy-dippy, sexy Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and unassuming Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) – is keen to let her guests in on the restorative spiritual journey that she has been taking in a Mexican commune these last two years. As sceptical, damaged Will wonders whether he is right to be suspicious of Eden’s glib emotional recovery, or whether he should just release his clinging grief to the easy-going vibe of acceptance in the LA night air, Kusama crafts a masterfully tense chattering-class thriller. For here, while these liberal bourgeois diners are encouraged to table their feelings, dumb (or morally dubious) ideas are met merely with ironic laughter, academic flight or polite silence.

The Invitation lays bare the divisive valleys between reticent reason and ‘Mansonian’ insanity, between open-minded secularism and Kool-Aid imposture, and sends out a ‘red light’ signal that is either meretricious siren call or stop sign. Either way, Kusama’s confronting take on faith and fanaticism nails the cult in America’s culture wars.

Anton Bitel