Watch this: The Invitation (2015)
Directed by Karyn Kusama, 2015 - Drafthouse Films, Cert 18. Available on various streaming services.
This review contains slight spoilers concerning the first half of the film.
"You're safe, OK?"
If you're the main character in a film and you're being told this in the middle of the film then you are either actually now safe from something, or just temporarily OK and things are going to get bad very soon. At the point when our character hears these words he doesn't know which it is and neither do we.
The evening doesn't start well. Invited by his ex-wife to a dinner-party of close friends Will, and his girlfriend Kira, are driving up into the hills where the people with money and nice houses live. He hasn't seen any of these people for two years and is feeling nervous and uncomfortable. We don't yet know why.
Suddenly, they hit a coyote. It's still alive but mortally wounded. Will steps up and deals with the situation with a tire-iron. Like I said - not the best start to an evening.
His ex-wife and her partner are living in the same house Will and she once shared. And suddenly being there, among a small group of people who were once very close, is deeply uncomfortable for him. And just keeps getting more so.
At first glance the obvious comparison is the recent Coherence (2013), another film set in one location, at a dinner party, where things just seem a little off. Imagined little paranoia's or something strange definitely going on, but being kept hidden, just out of view? They end up being very different films, though.
It's only a small spoiler, as it becomes apparent very early-on, to reveal that Will and his ex-wife, Eden, had once had a son together who died. Being back in that house soon starts having an effect on Will - everything reminding him of his dead child. Really, he isn't ready for this environment and these people and should get out. His discomfort levels are enhanced by how happy his ex-wife and lover, David, appear to be - he gets twitchier as time goes on, snapping at people - perceiving some people's behaviours as being peculiar.
Everyone, seemingly, thinks he needs to take a few minutes and calm himself down.
Then the happy couple in the nice house reveal why they've brought this group of old friends back together for this night - they met at a retreat in Mexico and have joined a movement that helps people deal with their grief and move on with purpose and happiness in their lives.
It sounds like a cult (actually called "The Invitation"), though they insist it isn't; but most of the other friends don't have a problem with that - taking the view that if it helps you get through your grief, well, it's got to be a positive thing.
Will, however, does have a problem with a few things. The slight remodeling of the house includes, nice-looking (but still), barred windows. David is always sure to lock all the doors to outside - there was a recent home-invasion nearby, he says. Will feels like he's being imprisoned.
The majority of the other friends also have a problem - with the video that David and Eden are so pleased to show them. It shows a woman in her 30's who has cancer; she's on her deathbed. There are a number of cult members in the room, the cult leader telling the dying woman she'll soon be at peace; that she'll soon be with people she has loved in the past and who have died - they are waiting in the afterlife for her. The woman finally breathes her last. The cult leader smiles, they all smile, and tells those gathered to feel her spirit; to breathe it in and feel the bliss of it.
It's disturbing as hell.
But is this David and Eden sharing something they see as a beautiful moment of final absolution - powerful and important and something they want to share with those close to them; part of a religion and belief system that has helped them recover from crippling pain, and they just have a really misplaced idea of how to present it to those who are new to it? Or is it something else?
Also, if it's supposed to be a healing night of old friends reconnecting why is this strange young woman here, Sadie? Apparently they met at the retreat in Mexico, but is now really the time for strangers? And why hasn't one of the invited old-friends shown up? And the surprise guest who suddenly appears, another cult member who has been invited because he happens to be in town, Pruitt; is that another thing to be worried about, or just one of those things that happens on the weekend when you're at dinner at someone's house?
That's the set-up; an emotionally frail man is in a situation and place he's not ready to deal with yet. And he's emotionally such a mess he doesn't, and we don't, know if he's projecting fears and anxieties onto the people around him, if something sinister is happening he can't quite understand, or a mixture of the two.
It sounds like I've discussed too much, given too much information, but that all only covers the opening act.
The acting, direction and production are all top-notch. The director Karyn Kusama's biggest film was the sci-fi, Charlize Theron starring, misfire Aeon Flux; though she's better known for the superior, earlier, Girlfight (2000). Here, she delivers on that earlier promise. It's a very accomplished, measured, piece of work.
More than that - if I'm watching a film and I feel the need to look at my watch, not because I'm bored, but because I'm beginning to freak out and I want to know how much more of this there's going to be
...well, that's a suspense film that's doing a pretty good job.