Tonight is the night our faith becomes real, reads the tagline for The Invitation, the psychological horror thriller that chronicles the dinner party from hell.
The Invitation was directed by Karyn Kusama, who is best known for her 2000 breakout feature Girlfight as well as the 2009 cult horror comedy Jennifer’s Body. The Invitation premiered at South by Southwest in 2015 before getting a limited theatrical release the next year to acclaim from critics who praised the film’s slow building tension, clever psychological twists, and thoughtful character dynamics.
The psychological horror film follows Will, who accepts a dinner invitation from his ex-wife Eden years after the accidental death of their young son caused considerable strain on their relationship, which led to their divorce. Will takes his new girlfriend Kira to Eden and her new husband David’s home in the Hollywood Hills, where they’re met with a party of about a dozen guests.
Eden seems remarkably more mentally and emotionally stable than Will remembers and admits that she found life-saving spiritual comfort from a grief support group. This is where they had met a few of their party guests. Will finds himself wandering through the home that he once shared with Eden. In the process, he experiences short flashbacks from their past together and re-lives a few of their fonder memories before the passing of their son– but mostly the painful memories that followed his death.
Eden, David, and a few of their party guests exhibit increasingly odd behavior throughout the night. Halfway through the party, Eden and David slip into conversation that they joined a group called “The Invitation,” which some of the party guests are familiar with and half-jokingly dismiss as a cult. This prompts David to pop in a video of the group’s leader who is seen providing spiritual counsel to a woman as she takes her final breaths, which is shown on screen. Some of the guests become visibly upset; Will questions their intentions in screening such a disturbing video to a light-hearted house party.
David acknowledges that the video didn’t prompt the reaction that he was hoping for and that he just wanted to show how his joining of “The Invitation” helped David overcome his anxieties about death. In the process, he vaguely suggests that his offended guests seem to be closed-minded to the spiritual journey he’s on. Because social convention dictates that others be respectful of others’ religious beliefs, the guests struggle to come up with a polite way to validate “The Invitation” while distancing themselves from it.
The group of 30-somethings decides to lighten the mood by playing a confessional game, wherein they each say something that they desire without fear of judgement from the other party guests. One guest says she wants cocaine, which David retrieves; another uses her round to request a kiss from another guest. This bizarrely leads to Pruitt, another member of “The Invitation,” to tell the vivid story of how he murdered his wife in a fit of rage and spent time in jail for the crime before finding redemption through “The Invitation.” This prompts one houseguest to leave in an anxious fit.
As the night progresses, Will and other dinner guests jump through hoops to discount the bizarre behavior of their hosts as harmless– even suggesting that they’re peculiar mannerisms were consistent with the stereotype of the quirky, out of touch Los Angelenos. Further contributing to the social manipulation that the party guests endure through the night, David attempts to gaslight Will about his behavior, suggesting that Will is actually the one being rude by being openly suspicious of David and Eden’s behavior.
Therein lies the source of dread that drips from every scene: conformity to social conventions. The Invitation explores universal fears rooted mistrust of strangers– especially ones who don’t make their motivations or intentions clear. Will wonders why Eden and David have decided to reconnect with him out of the blue, why it needed to be a house party, and why they seem so committed to questioning him about how he’s handled the grief following the death of his and Eden’s son. Similar to the themes explored in 2014’s Creep, the unease Will experiences is rooted in the ambiguity of Eden and David’s ulterior motives.
Politeness theory, which centers around the basic premise that people have a universal desire to be treated with politeness, helps to contextualize the decisions Will makes. After being forced by Eden and David to relive his traumatic experiences, Will stays at the party. He endures harassment from his party hosts through the entire night, defending his character and his skepticism to their ideas about death and the afterlife, even when his discomfort turns to genuine fear for his and his new girlfriend’s safety. He bites his tongue and stays put in order to perform social protocols– and to save face.
Politeness theory is intertwined with face theory, which explains that every individual has a desired self-image of how we want to be seen. This affects how we communicate with others to achieve the goal of maintaining a positive and consistent self-image. This is achieved through two different kinds of face: positive face and negative face.
- Positive face reflects an individual’s need for his or her wishes and desires to be appreciated in a social context.
- Negative face reflects an individual’s need for freedom of action, freedom from imposition, and the right to make one’s own decisions.
David and Eden exploit the power dynamic as the hosts of the party, where Will is the seen as a sort of outsider– adding pressure for Will to maintain positive face by appearing to be adaptively growing and healing after the death of his son while also maintaining negative face by exercising his autonomy from the party hosts and guests who are members of an apparent cult. Every word Will utters is subjected to intense scrutiny. David and Eden create a social situation that makes it nearly impossible for Will to save face.
Director Karyn Kusama explained the social themes in The Invitation to The Verge: “I think part of what the film is doing is exploring is the limits of instinct. When we screened it for our friends, some of them would say, ‘Well, I would leave that party. I would never stay at that party.’ A lot of those people were people I knew well, and I knew they would never leave the party because its very, very transgressive to get up and say, You know what? I’m really uncomfortable. I’m not really feeling what’s going on in this party and I can’t be a part of it. I have to go. It takes a lot of certainty to do something like that. And I do think that’s part of what the movie is playing with, is this notion of what our sense of tolerance is for just plain weirdness.”
In the end, Karyn Kusama succeeds in making a horror film that makes audiences question how they would interact in the social minefield laid out before the brilliant ensemble cast of The Invitation. With captivatingly sinister dialog and the nightmarish and chilling climax, The Invitation serves as a masterclass in slow-building tension and a horrifying cautionary tale about the perils of social complacency.