Even in literature and movies, sometimes good art is just an image. The Invitation is such a movie. It’s interesting and atmospheric throughout, and it probably rewards multiple viewings, but the point of it is really summed up in that final image. Yes, you have to watch the whole thing to get there.
As it opens, our protagonist Will and his girlfriend Kira are driving to a dinner party hosted by Will’s ex-wife. Their marriage fell apart after their son died in an accident, and Will hasn’t seen her – or any of the other invited guests – in two years. It’s a tense car ride made worse when Will hits a coyote and has to kill it to put it out of its misery with a tire iron. This, as it turns out, will be Thematically Important.
The house is … well, perfect. It’s one of those midcentury modern places that are designed to be warm and sunny but can seem really cold and sterile at night. And it’s decorated like it’s 1976 rather than 1956, which adds to the uncanny feel. One of the finer points of the movie, in fact, is how everything always feels just a shade too dark, even though the lighting is always a warm yellow or orange.
Immediately on arrival our hackles raise. Something isn’t right here, and it’s difficult to say what. The cues themselves are straightforward. Ex-wife Eden and new husband(?) David have that kind of cheap, artificial 1970s hippie happiness that’s a bit sinister because it’s too good to be true. Adding to the effect: Eden is a woman in white. There’s another woman in the house who seems like a bit of a groupie. The first time we see her she’s half-naked in the bedroom, and when she comes out she’s even hippier than the other two, quickly announcing to the group that she loves all of them genuinely, even though she’s only just met most of them. Eden slaps a member of the group for merely expressing an opinion she doesn’t like but then quikcly offers an olive branch. Choi, the final guest, hasn’t arrived, even though his girlfriend has, and while it’s noted he’s unreliable, he’s not actually the type to noshow. There is, however, a rather offputting friend of David’s in his place, a man named Pruitt who, with his height, bald head, pudge and bad clothes seems out of place in this group of hipsters. The wine – a 1985 Rothschild Chateau Mouton – is entirely too expensive and rare for a gathering like this, and yet they go through more than one bottle. The door stays locked; David is willing to leave the key in the lock, but he won’t leave the door unlocked. Things like that – they all add to the sense that something just isn’t right here.
We soon find out that David and Eden went to Mexico for a while and joined a cult – called (what else?) "The Invitation." They might even be recruiting for it at this party. Certainly we get to see a video that starts out like a kind of advertisement for it, but it’s soon apparent that it’s completely inappropriate. The crowd is decidedly not receptive, much to the hosts’ disappointment. So instead they play a game called "I want," where you simply say what you want and your wish is granted. Pruitt uses the opportunity to tell an even less appropriate story, and Claire – one of the other guests – leverages her turn to ask to leave. That wish is granted too, but not without some real pushback, and the sense of unease grows.
During all of this, Will has flashbacks – blink-and-you-missed-it brief ones – of his life in this house before with Eden. Their son’s fatal accident happened in the back yard; it seems he was hit in the head with a baseball bat by another kid. Will is still grieving, and Eden probably is too, though you would’t know it from her faux sunny demeanor.
SPOILERS BEGIN HERE
Things really come to a head when Will picks the wrong moment to accuse his hosts of engaging in a sinister plot – basically that they killed Choi and are planning to kill everyone else. At just that moment, Choi shows up, and Will collapses into tears. Situationally, it seems his inability to cope with his son’s death is being exacerbated by the house, leading to delusions and paranoia. Emotionally, however, we still feel that Will is somehow in the right here. Will feels it too. He asks to see his son’s room before he leaves, and of course they let him. There’s a tender moment where he imagines lying in bed with his son, but he knows it’s a dream and so he sits up … to see David in the back yard through the window lighting a red lantern. Suspicion aroused again, he opens a laptop sitting on a table and watches a video of the cult leader.
When he rejoins the group, they’re all about to have some cake and digestif. In a flash, he realizes the wine must be poisoned and starts knocking the glasses out of everyone’s hands, but instead ends up knocking Sadie into a piece of furniture, seriously injuring her. However, he turns out to be right – the one guest (Gina) who drank the wine keels over and dies. Now exposed, David, Eden and Pruitt begin shooting the guests, and for about 15min. of action the movie is a complete letdown. It’s not that we didn’t see this coming, it’s just that it seems so banal after the stupendous buildup. This is apparently a cult that believes that death is the only way to truly relieve the burden of true grief – specifically someone else’s death, as that person carries away your pain to the eternal afterlife. By killing their friends, David and Eden believe they will join them on the other side, reunited free of grief. As cult beliefs go, it’s plausible enough – it’s just not cool enough to carry the buildup. We bought into this for the intrigue; we don’t really want to watch an action thriller.
No worries, though, because that final image is coming. Will, Kira and Tommy (one half of a gay couple in the group) survive the free-for-all, and as they stand in the backyard they realize they can hear sirens and helicopters. Looking out over the valley, they see possibly a hundred red lanterns burning on the hillside, and it dawns on them that their dinner party isn’t an isolated incident. We remember from earlier in the evening one of the gay guys – Tommy? – mentioning that The Invitation was quite popular in Hollywood. This is coordinated mayhem, then – Manson on serious steroids.
For me, that image of all the lanterns was the movie, and I don’t need it to be any deeper than that. It’s a good symbol of our times. The hot topic these days is how Francis Fukuyama turned out to be wrong to predict that history had ended. And yet it’s interesting how. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for the world to be falling apart, it just sort of is. People got bored. We’d have probably been fine going to neoliberal work in neoliberal jobs, letting technology advance to make us gradually more comfortable while the third world got less and less poor as a side effect. But that isn’t enough for people. There’s a strain of person who doesn’t know how to "just live." This cult is the cult for those people – a cult for the Antifa age, where people want to be radical, but at the local Starbucks. There’s no actual crisis. This is D.H. Lawrence’s "sane revolution", where we "upset the apple-cart/and see which way the apples go a-rollin’" – just to do it. Eden’s absolute happiness that we know is artificial because the world is never just happy exists right alongside a coordinated mass murder spree in which – at a guess – something like 90% of Hollywood dies. It’s the kind of thing that would unwravel the social order, and they seem to be doing it just to do it. I can’t help but think that ISIS recruitment is essentially this. Someting about just going to work and incrementally improving feels artificial to people, and so they deliberately do the opposite of all that they know is good. This is what Black Metal is. It’s why Antifa is starting fights with "nazis" that not only clearly aren’t a threat to anything, they’re mostly not even nazis. It’s why people are showing up armed to protest the removal of publicly-funded statues when taking up a collection to pay for moving it elsewhere would be the obvious civically responsible alternative. Something about all the culture war conflicts we’re seeing now just seems so fictional – like it’s all made up just to have something to do. Truth is sort of beside the point. And, well, it’s why those lanterns are red and not green. Because underneath it all, the members of this cult know this isn’t celebratory, and they probably also know it is’t real. They’re not going to meet in the afterlife, and if the bloodbath takes away their pains it’s just because there is no afterlife. They know this but knowing it isn’t the point. So, I liked that image. A hillside full of red lights as proof of people being murderously irrational just to do it. Because they’re bored.