Thrillers are an interesting genre. They don’t function on quite the same level as other films, as the main focus becomes the tightness of the plot over any other aspect. Other films can afford to let quiet moments stand for nothing more than a sense of meditation in the middle of a film. For a thriller, that lull can lose the audience’s interest, and the rest of the film falls apart. Thrillers don’t even necessarily need very realistic acting to back them up. Just look at Hitchcock films, where the acting is at times extremely wooden (though that is also a product of the times) and the dialogue unrealistic. But that isn’t the point, the point is the momentum of the film, dolling out plot points and clues just when the audience thinks they have the whole thing figured out. Twists and turns can make or break a thriller, and they rely on a general assumption of how a human being might react to this situation in real life. There have been few masters of the thriller, and many more pale imitators of those masters.
The Invitation, directed by Karyn Kusama (of Jennifer’s Body and Aeon Flux fame) for the paltry sum of $1,000,000, is a prime example of just this sort of engaging thriller. The film centers around a dinner party in what looks like the Hollywood Hill’s, where a group of disparate friends, that have since gone their own ways, are contacted by the two hosts to attend the party, after two years of no one seeing or hearing from the hosts. It quickly becomes apparent that some tragedy is looming over all of the guests, and the night in general, this produces the driving point of the plot. But, as mentioned before, the plot to the film is integral to the interest that the movie derives. I can’t really get any deeper into the plot without spoiling the fun of the film.
One moment I do want to talk about comes during the first scene of the film. The main character is driving with his girlfriend, through the winding, night-time hills, towards the dinner party. They are giving some small exposition (‘Why do you think they just got in touch after 2 years?’ sort of thing), and setting up the story. Then a hard stop and a bump at the front of the car. “What was that?” the girl asks. “A coyote.” The man gets out and goes to check on the bleeding and slowly dying coyote. The woman gets out, aghast. He grabs a tire iron from the back of the car and sends the woman back into the car, before he mercifully beats the coyote to death. It is an intense scene and brilliantly evokes an emotional reaction that serves the tone of the rest of the film. Having this horrific, but understandable action at the top, to define the main character and set the mood, brings a sense of empathy that can be hard to achieve with characters you have just met. What the scene functions on is the deep seated fear most humans have, of not only running something over in your car, but of having to kill something through brute force alone. Could you bring yourself to kill something, having to use your physical might to do it, even when it is for a greater good? Even while most of us would say yes, it is hard to predict how anyone would react in the same situation.
One noticeable detriment of the film is that the small budget did not afford a very experienced cast. It becomes apparent that they all seem to be from a live theater background, as their dialogue comes off a little stagey and overly pronounced. But this also strangely fits the tone of the film. Even when it is creating human moments that would be better served by more realistic acting, these human moments are presented as small puzzle pieces that you are slowly trying to put together, making the realism of the delivery take a backseat to the information that is being presented. This sense of puzzlement that weaves through the film is produced through a soundtrack that provokes a certain queasiness and unease, making the innocuous strange and questionable, as we watch from our main character’s perspective. Also, there are artful shots thrown in that add to this sense of unease. As we watch in slow motion as the feet of the guests move up the stairs, the audience watches in anticipation of where this visual puzzle piece is going to fit in. In other contexts, it may seem indulgent, but it serves to give a sense of motion and playfulness to what could have been a largely static film (being shot largely in the one house).
I haven’t delved much into how I feel about The Invitation, because I can barely talk about it, but it is an above average thriller with some of the trappings that come with lower budgets. These problems tend to disappear, though, as the enthrallment of trying to piece together the overhanging unease and mystery that seems to be ever present kept me at the edge of my seat. It is not an easy thing to achieve this level of engagement, especially when handicapped with a less experienced cast, but the movie pulls it off beautifully and made a large impression for such a small scale.