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Front Page - Friday, April 22, 2016

An ‘Invitation’ you can’t turn down

The Critic's Corner movie review

David Laprad

Something feels off, but Will can’t put his finger on it.

He’s at an elegant dinner party being thrown by his ex-wife, Eden, and her new husband, David. The couple invited Eden and Will’s entire circle of friends as well as a stranger who likes to hang out on the fringes of the gathering and watch.

This is the first time everyone has gotten together since Eden and David dropped out of sight a couple of years ago. Questions abound: Where have you been? What have you been doing? Is Eden really OK now following the tragedy that broke her and Will apart? Eden and David seem a little too at ease, and a little too welcoming given the awkward social circumstances. (The guest list alone, which included Will’s girlfriend, would have had my Spidey sense tingling.)

But no one seems to be noticing the little things like Will. Things like David locking the deadbolt on the front door. Why would he do that? Things like Eden hiding pills in her bedroom when she had supposedly recovered from her addiction. Things like ... Well, if I tell you everything, you won’t have anything to look for, and that wouldn’t be any fun.

For nearly 90 minutes, “The Invitation” invites you to settle into its slow burn and feel the flames gradually growing around you. Is Will mentally ill? Or is he on to something? If something nefarious is going on, what? This is a harmless dinner party thrown by friends. Or is it? The film could go either way.

When the answer to those questions finally comes, it’s like an explosion. It’s devastating, powerful, and it rips through everything without discernment. The 90 minutes you spent watching, waiting, and guessing are paid off handsomely.

With “The Invitation,” writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi and director Karyn Kusama have created a master class in suspense. I could imagine Hitchcock getting his hands on the screenplay and having a field day with it. But I don’t know if he could have done any better than Kusama. She frequently isolates Will, even when he’s with the larger group, and rarely lingers on one conversation or one person too long. She even handles what could have been a slightly goofy moment (the revelation of where Eden and David have been) with grace.

Kusama’s choices are intelligent across the board. The cinematography is warm and inviting, providing a counterpoint to the heated boil inside of Will, and lending credence to the theory that he might just be bonkers. She cleverly creates physical boundaries outside the home, which only tightens the noose she’s placed around the viewer’s neck. And she masterfully orchestrates a jarring tonal shift in the film.

The cast also deserves credit for how well “The Invitation” works. As Will, Logan Marshall-Green does a wonderful balancing act that kept me wondering whether he was preternaturally observant, unduly paranoid, or just plain nuts. His role was not just the trickiest to pull off, it was also the riskiest, as the weight of the film hangs on how believable he is. Fortunately, he delivered a beautifully measured performance.

As Eden, Tammy Blanchard’s performance is all about nuance. Eden seems to drift through the film like she’s swallowed a couple of those pills she shouldn’t be taking, but we know that can’t be true because she’s also prone to flaring up, as she does when she slaps one of her good friends for taking a joke too far. So is her breezy, carefree persona a ruse? I was captivated whenever Blanchard was on the screen, and loved how she kept pace with each new story beat – including the final ones.

“The Invitation” is currently available via most video-on-demand channels. It is well worth seeking out. I’m even considering inviting a few friends over for a movie night. I might also ask a stranger who likes to hang out on the fringes of the gathering and watch to join us ...

Three and a half stars out of four. This film has not been rated.

Viewing tip of the week: If you enjoy tense thrillers, check out “Hush,” a very effective film in which a resourceful deaf woman takes on a psychopathic killer. This simple cat-and-mouse game had me on the edge of my proverbial seat. “Hush” is streaming worldwide on Netflix.

David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.