Reviews: The Invitation

The Invitation,
Directed by Karyn Kusama,
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman, Aiden Lovekamp, Michelle Krusiec, Tammy Blanchard

Other than the fact The Invitation debuted to some acclaim at the London Film Festival, I knew next to nothing about this film in advance (a rare occurrence these days when we hear about most films well in advance), but frankly they had me at Karyn Kusama. Kusama impressed me with her Nicole Kidman-starring Destroyer, which I reviewed on here back in the spring (see here). When I realised it was the same director I was more than happy to have a look at The Invitation, and I am glad I did, as it proved to be a masterclass in tension and discomfort, right from the start.

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his partner Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are driving up into the hills behind LA, invited to a dinner party with old friends, hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). The sense of something out of joint is present right from the start, when Kira and Will’s car hits a coyote on the isolated, tree-lined road up through the hills. And this isn’t just a sudden accident, Kusama drags the scene out – the animal is mortally wounded but not dead yet, making the whole incident more distressing. Will is already uncomfortable at the thought of returning to the house he once shared with his former wife, without this incident – a portent? – on the way.

I imagine most of us would feel awkward at having dinner with and ex and their new partner, and in this case we learn that it is a gathering of a bunch of old friends, but none of them have heard from Eden in a couple of year, leaving them all wondering, understandably, why now, out of the blue, they send an overly-elaborate invitation insisting they all get together at this time. Will is clearly ill at ease, and we gradually discover through tiny flashbacks of memory, triggered as he goes round the home he once shared with Eden, that this isn’t just because they are ex-partners, it is that something happened to them something very, very bad, something that drove them apart and almost finished both of them. Something that happened around this house…

This makes Will question why she can stand living here again, not to mention the strange serenity she and David seem to now possess – a rather creepy form of serenity, the type you expect from someone sucked into some phoney therapy or cultish type group. And then they mention a group run by a guru in Mexico, and introduce two strangers into this reunion of friends, two people the rest have never seen before but David and Eden know from this Mexican retreat. Again Will wonders why these two, odd strangers have been invited to what is meant to be a gathering of old fiends?

The others, even his girlfriend Kira, think he is over-reacting, that it is his history with this house, Eden and the tragedy that befell them that is causing him to react so badly to the evening, to jump at shadows, suspect for no reason. Perhaps he is still disturbed, discomfited, out of his element, in a place he doesn’t want to be. But why does David lock all the doors once everyone is in? Why are there bars on the windows, why is there no phone service, why are Eden and David so keen nobody leaves early?

Is this all in Will’s abused psyche or is something really wrong here? I don’t want to ruin anything with possible spoilers, so I won’t say anymore on the plot. I must say, though, Kusama, crafts such a sense of ever-increasing unease throughout the film, expertly cranking up the sense of wrongness and disturbing atmosphere, but for much of it leaving us to wonder how much is genuinely out of kilter and how much is the broken psyche of Will reacting badly to this event. The slow reveal of the tragedy that befell him and Eden aids in this and gradually changes the viewer’s perspective, leading to a fascinating and darkly compelling third reel.

The sense of tension, of unease and wrongness lurking below what seems like a lovely home and group in a nice area is beautifully done – think Blue Velvet era Lynch crossed with Get Out, perhaps, and the use of mostly one location – the house – enclosed everything and makes it more tense, more claustrophobic. Highly recommended.

The Invitation is released on Blu-Ray (with a raft of extras, including commentary by Kusama, making of and interview features) by Second Sight on November 4th

Destroyer

Destroyer,
Directed by Karyn Kusama,
Starring Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebell, Tatiana Maslany, Scott McNairy, Jade Pettyjohn

The detective haunted by past mistakes is such a regular part of the crime movie, that it can be tempting to shrug your shoulders when you see another, but that would be a mistake in the case of Destroyer. Yes, it does mine that oft-excavated vein of mistakes and regrets, but there are several aspects to it that I found made it stand out from so many others. First of all it’s relatively rare to see a woman in the haunted, broken detective role (let alone a woman who carries much of the film), secondly the film takes a very realistic, almost dirty approach to its world and its characters (there is no glamour here, no stylised Noir look to soften the brutality and the regrets, Julie Kirkwood’s outstanding cinematography alternates lonely highways, bleached sunlight or miserable rain, or decrepit, filthy apartments), and thirdly, there is an absolute stand-out (and indeed Golden Globe-nominated) performance from an almost unrecognisable Nicole Kidman (hats off to Bill Corso, Tamil Lane and the rest of the make-up team).

Kidman’s Erin Bell is a burned-out LAPD detective, fallen from her heights as a hot-shot, undercover FBI agent. The special make-up and her performance combine to give us a woman who isn’t just haunted by past mistakes, she’s all but broken under their weight, everything from her blotchy skin and dishevelled hair and clothes to her limping walk and body posture indicates someone not just burdened with a heavy past, but someone who is deep in self-loathing and guilt from it. This isn’t just the mistakes made, this is a person who hates themselves. As the film progresses we flashback between the case Bell is investigating now and the one which went so wrong during her FBI days, the two less colliding together, more being woven into one narrative separated by the years.

The film takes a much more realistic approach than many other crime films – when people fight here there is none of the usual tropes of a grunt when hit then our hero gets right back up, when Bell gets punched, she falls like a real person in pain, throwing up, bleeding. That lack of glamour extends well beyond Kidman’s disfiguring make-up and shabby appearance, even to a sex scene which is possibly one of the least erotic I’ve seen in cinema (a grudging, miserable sex act performed as the price for information, another part of her eroded self-respect worn away). Her self-loathing has alienated all around her, from her partner in the force to her estranged husband and an out of control daughter, everything she is involved in seems toxic, and yet there are hints here of a desperation for some sort of redemption, to help her daughter, to stop her partner being dragged into her mess.

Toby Kebell’s Silas (the criminal behind the incident which ruined her career and toxified her life), and her former FBI partner and lover Chris (Avengers’ Sebastian Stan) both offer excellent support, while the structure of the film toys a little with our expectations of just what mistakes younger Bell made, revealing pieces, tying in to the present-day case and narrative in a very satisfying way, aided by that atmospheric cinematography, the sight of the younger Bell contrasting strongly with the older, ruined version.

But really this is Kidman’s film, she buries herself into the role of Bell, emotionally, physically and mentally, you can feel the damaged edges of Bell’s life, the raw guilt that leaves her feeling that she doesn’t deserve any better, yet still clutches at a chance for some tiny redemption. I’m not going to risk spoilers by going into the plot too much, besides a lot of what works here is the atmosphere, the visuals and the raw, damaged, emotionally-scarred performance by Kidman. A powerful, unusual and haunting addition to the cop with a dark past oeuvre.

Destroyer is released on Digital Download from May 20th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray by Lionsgate from May 27th