Drafthouse Films’ selection of films isn’t always perfect, but it’s always interesting. The fact that Karyn Kusama, a director who I enjoy in both independent and big-budget versions, is directing what looks to be a very tense little thriller, ups my interest even more.
Small horror films are having a transitory moment right now as big budget films start perfecting their multi-film games, casting out 10-12 film umbrellas artfully composed and well thought. 10 Cloverfield Lane is indicative of the transition – a small film that, for reasons I still don’t understand feels the need to tack on an ending, as enjoyable as it is, that almost feels like a different film. As if, we need to leave loose ends, just in case some big budget franchise might pick them on up. The Invitation, Karyn Kusama’s first independent film in over a decade, is, for the majority of its running time, a taut thriller, the type of film that slowly doles out the plot through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, until the audience can do nothing more than grip the corduroy edge of their Sears sofa cushions. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) accept an invitation to a friend reunion of sorts put on by Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and David (Michiel Huisman), returned after two years. From the start, something is off. Something bad has happened in this house to Will, and Logan Marshall-Green plays him like a PTSD-addled war vet, all long-hair and beard trying to find some semblance of normalcy in what he used to call his friend group. Kusama smartly doles out the information, painting a just barely surreal setting (the film takes place entirely in one Los Angeles mansion) but never letting the audience know if the strangeness is just Will being slightly off-kilter, or if something truly awful lurks in the background. Kusama plays a good game, dropping a hint of information that might prove Will’s perceptions true, only to pull the rug out from under them a scene later. We the audience are as confused and ignorant as poor broken Will, and when the shit finally does hit the fan, we get scoured along the bottom of the riverbed just as bad as everyone else. It is at once a film about the awkwardness of seeing friends for the first time in years, and of dealing with grief, and how the ways that we often do can push us further down a spiral of pain and misery, but even more so, it’s just a very well constructed, absolutely creepy film about the terrible things human beings do in the name of making themselves feel better. But, Kusama constructs the early bits of the film, almost too well, creating a hall of mirrors where everyone is in the dark, and everyone is waiting for resolution (film characters included) and when finally, she feels ready to pull away that curtain, it’s almost a let down. I’m not going to ruin anything, but when the events of the night finally turn their corner towards conclusion, all I could think was, “Oh yeah, I saw that coming.” The brutal end is just as beautifully put together as the rest of the film, but it was almost exactly what I imagined what it was going to be, and because of that, it felt lesser than the original, exciting tension I had experienced before. Even moreso, moments before the credit rolls, Kusama injects a scene that seems aimed at pushing a franchise forward, or if anything, exposing the viewer to a bigger, bolder scale of her tiny, intimate creepfest. It made no sense. This is a small film, a film that literally plays on the claustrophobic fears of a house filled with people trying to figure out just what the fuck is going on, but the last shot of the whole film expands the mythology (as wonderfully vague as it is) into something bigger, and in doing so, it detracts from the overall vision Kusama was trying to hit. Regardless, ninety-nine percent of the film is a twisted mind-fuck that will keep you guessing, it just can’t stick that last yard.
One Last Thought:
John Carroll Lynch is having a moment right now as a character actor and I’m all for it. His Pruitt is an impressively rendered bit of soft menace. A giant who’s done harm and could, if he wasn’t so blandly nice, do it again.