Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015) opens with death. As Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) drive to a dinner party, their car accidentally hits a coyote and Will ends the coyote’s life using a tire iron – to take it out of its misery.
As the film progresses, we find out that the dinner party is being held by Eden (Tammy Blanchard), Will’s ex-wife, and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman). Will has not seen Eden or any of his close friends in years – not since the death of Ty, he and Eden’s son. Will is clearly haunted by Ty’s death, and being in his old house (where it happened) triggers a lot of painful feelings and bittersweet memories.
Eden proudly announces that she is happy, having moved past her grief. Will is confused and disturbed by the perma-smiles pasted on Eden and David’s faces, and their philosophy that holding onto pain is useless. Will’s old friends, the other guests at the dinner party, do not find the couple’s newfound happiness strange – close friends of the bereaved do not like to see their loved ones suffering, and easily accept the declaration that one has moved on. Will is skeptical and jumpy – not only does he feel that Eden and David are deep in denial, but he feels something dangerous in the air at the dinner party.
As Will moves through his old house, the space brings him back to his old life in a visceral way. He sees the sunny birthday party in the backyard, where Ty was killed. He sees himself and Eden lovingly bathing each other in their bathroom, and Ty walking in to tell them he loves them. He sees Ty lying in his bed – Eden has left the room untouched, Ty’s toys still scattered along the floor. This is one sign that she has not moved on from his death. On top of the strange vibes Will is getting from his hosts, his grief is at the surface, breaking his heart over and over again. It is clear he feels lost in his life, and this feeling becomes exacerbated when he is in his old house around all his old friends (and a couple of weird new “friends”, Sadie and Pruitt, whom Eden and David met in Mexico).
Things become very strange when Eden and David show their friends a video about “The Invitation”, a way of life they adopted in Mexico (multiple guests remark on how cult-ish it all seems). This way of life involves letting go of grief, pain, and trauma – choosing to be happy. But Will cannot buy into the idea that letting go of grief is easy, or even possible. Ty’s death affects Will every day, and it affects every part of his life. Kira reassures Will that moving on is not a betrayal – it is okay to keep living your life, while carrying the pain of your loss with you. Will feels helpless in the face of his loss, and expresses confusion and anger at the way Eden seemingly has it all together – but he is not jealous, because it is obvious to him that Eden does not have it all together. Nor do David, Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) or Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), who admits that he accidentally killed his wife.
Rob Hunter of Film School Rejects notes that the film walks the fine line between Will’s suspicions being paranoid, or actually grounded – until the truth finally comes out, after a long, slow burn. It is revealed that David and Eden planned to poison all of the party guests, so they could all be happy and peaceful in death together. Their philosophy is a lot darker than they had lead everyone to believe – their “moving on” from grief is actually a defeat. The Invitation posits that life is not worth living after you have lost someone, but that your only option to be free is to die. However hopeless and helpless Will feels, it becomes clear that he wants to keep living. Even though he suffers immensely, he wants to live, and Kira is consistently supportive, strong, and by his side. Kira is the unsung hero of this film – Will brings her to the strange dinner party at his ex-wife’s house, and she is constantly friendly, graceful, and receptive. She is wary of Will’s paranoia, but when things get crazy and violent, she goes right into battle mode – she will do anything she can to protect herself and Will. She is exactly the kind of partner Will needs to support him through his grief.
This film presents the idea that everyone grieves differently, and that it is unfair to criticize the bereaved for how they choose to live with their loss. But it also portrays the idea that denial and attempting to “let go” of pain are dangerous things, and that one should be honest and open in order to heal and continue living. Eden’s denial and “happiness” turn out to be insidious, and dangerous for those around her. Suffering is inevitable in life – at some point, everyone loses someone they love, and it is incredibly hard to deal with. Instead of focusing on getting past one’s pain, it is healthier to own it, to recognize it, and to feel it when it is there. The Invitation weaves these ideas into a thriller/horror narrative, making for one tense and thoughtful film.