The Invitation ★★★½

"Forgiveness doesn't have to wait. I'm free to forgive myself and so are you. It's a beautiful thing. It really is." - Pruitt

Watched this as a recommendation from Chris Stuckmann's review of Upgrade. Felt it could be worth a look considering how much I enjoyed Logan Marshall-Green's performance in that. And lo and behold, this was pretty darn good. My type of horror/thriller film. Focusing less on cheap scares (There's really only three or so moments you could consider jump scares, one at the very beginning and the others at the tail end.) and more on building proper atmosphere and tension. The Invitation, at least in its concept, is the cinematic equivalent of seeing how far you can stretch a rubber band before it snaps. I'd say there in lies its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

Beginning with performances, the main three that stuck out to me were John Carroll Lynch as Pruitt, Tammy Blanchard as Eden, and of course, Logan Marshall-Green as Will. Lynch is a very underrated actor, here getting to show his frequent subtleness to his roles. He doesn't emote because he doesn't need to. His monotonous nature is hypnotic, a good reason as to why he operates well in horror or thriller affairs. Blanchard is similar in a way of finding stand-out moments without emoting, but also having various moments where the emotions seep out from under the cracks. One of the most powerful images in the film was a close-up of her with a wide grin as her eyes appear to be filling up with tears. Smiling the pain away is a common theme latent in the film. Finally, Marshall-Green, easily giving the best performance in the flick, finds power in his strong reactions. In-between watching Upgrade and this, I saw that before he got his start on the screen, he was a theater actor. (His parents are also drama teachers and he's even the artistic director of a university's theater department.) This shows, as he gets to display every emotion in the book. Logan showcases himself as having great potential when he is given good material. Within two films, he's gone from "Literally who?" to "Tom Hardy who?". Can't wait to see him in more stuff.

Briefly touching on the aesthetics of the film, they're through the roof. From cinematography to lighting to sound design to score, it's all very pleasing. I can't remember if I've said this in a review before, but I believe in the woman's touch. Thinking on all the female-directed films I've seen, most have had a unique and personal feel to them. Very few have felt flat in direction or style. The Invitation is no exception. Dim lights and shadows are used to full potential. Everyone is framed in a certain way that speaks volumes of their characters and who they relate to. The sound design and score is fitting to a horror flick, utilizing silence and string music to further build the tension surrounding the characters. It's all good stuff. (Also briefly touching on the writing of the film, I admire its approaches to the concepts of loss and how it can change someone. That, as well as how desperate one can be to return to the person they once were. At times when the dialogue itself comes off as stilted, the themes shine through.)

My main complaints towards the flick, to me what stops it from being a great of a film as I think it could be, is characterization and structure. First, besides the three performances I mentioned above, no one else particularly stands out. Despite getting quite awhile to know everyone in this film, characterizations are weak. I wanted to know more, but wasn't truly offered much. Most were a blank slate, their extreme characteristics standing in for actual character. Second, the structure of the film itself doesn't bother me. If anything, this has a great definable three act structure, the end of each act coming off as clear. Instead, my complaints lie within the reveals throughout and some of the set-up. I felt a way this film could improve would be to make it less clear at the get-go that something is wrong with this party. Within just ten or fifteen minutes, it's clear Eden is a little off her rocker. Will should come off as paranoid for immediately suspecting something sinister. We shouldn't side with him right off the bat. Set up the party as something normal and friendly, much to Will's surprise. Then, just as he's finally getting comfortable, start revealing the unnerving elements. Going back to my rubber band comparison, make the viewer not know the rubber band is being stretched wide until it's too late, or even make them think there isn't a rubber band in the first place. (On a side note, I would either take out the flashbacks or move them further into the film. You'll know what I'm talking about when you see it.)

Regardless of this, I admired The Invitation for its careful crafting of tension and its unique examination of grief and trauma, and the lengths some will go to in order to make the pain stop. It's uncomfortable, wonderfully cinematic, and builds to an explosive finale that's well worth the wait. (Without giving away what it is, the final shot of the film is either great or stupid. I'm going back and forth between the two, but I think I'm currently leaning more towards the former. It seems to be saying a lot about the fragile psyche of the upper middle class of Los Angeles. Or not. You be the judge.) Despite my lower rating, I highly recommend giving this a watch. (I might change the rating either after thinking about it more or even after a potential second viewing.) Go in knowing as little about it as you can. Don't watch any trailers or anything like that. Just accept the invite.

7.5/10

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