You've got to RSVP yes to Karyn Kusama's thriller The Invitation — you just might not survive. At an awkward dinner party in the Hollywood Hills, the hostess, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her boyfriend, David (Michiel Huisman), uncork a case of vintage wine to lubricate this reunion among eight estranged friends. The most tense is Eden's ex, Will (Logan Marshall-Green), who can't stop commenting on his wealthy former wife's remodeling job: the new window bars on their old home, the missing doors, and her creepy, unfamiliar smile.
The Invitation is fascinated by fatal civility. As the night gets odder and odder — starting with the surprise entrance of two strangers, ominous widowerer Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) and the underdressed and oversexed Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) — Will is flabbergasted that he's the only freaked-out guest. The nervous pals are on their best behavior. But Kusama (Girlfight, Æon Flux, Jennifer's Body) keeps the camera on her cast's faces. She's as observant and intrusive as a pickpocket. In quick glances, she shows us what people are too polite to say: that Will is having an emotional breakdown, and that, despite David's expensive booze, the cult recruitment video he just screened was weird, right? Yet the guests keep drinking, and snorting, and playing Sadie's makeout games, all the while ignoring the animal instincts that would make a deer bolt for safety.
This superficiality combined with Eden's hippie-dippie, Botoxed beauty makes The Invitation play like a California satire. When Tommy (Mike Doyle) finally admits that the party is "a little Manson-y," his boyfriend (Jordi Vilasuso) shrugs: "Yeah, they're a little weird. But it's L.A." Tense dinners happen anywhere, to anyone, and Kusama is interested in universal human behavior. She pauses moments just long enough to make us wonder what we'd do at that table. Would we ignore Will's paranoia? Or would we run?
There will be blood. What's worse, however, is the violence we don't see. In the opening scene, Will and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi of Miles Ahead) drive up the hillside and run over a coyote. Offscreen, Will mercy kills the animal with a tire iron. But Kusama makes sure we hear metal hitting concrete and the beast's tiny whimper. She wants us to imagine the worst, which means that, like Will, we're already fabricating horrors that might not be real.
The Invitation keeps using sound to shove us further inside Will's head. As Will tries to figure out what's really happening at Eden and Dave's, Kusama turns down his friends' nervous background chatter and cranks up the tension. We're silent, alert, and easy to sneak up on and scare. I'd like to claw out of his brain during Will's flashbacks about his dead son — a lame cliché that should be banned for a decade, along with dead wives and kidnapped daughters. The movie doesn’t need to show us sentimental, dreamlike clips of Eden and Will’s old life when we can see the present-day scars. But who can blame Kusama for clinging to one musty trope? She's a bold filmmaker who, unlike many of her male equals, has only had the chance to make a movie every five years or so. With the wickedly sharp The Invitation, Kusama has demanded that Hollywood give her a seat at the table. I'd give her one — or else.