[ZINE] THE IDENTITY CRISES OF THE WOMEN WITHIN KARYN KUSAMA’S ‘THE INVITATION’

Much has been written about genre heroine Karyn Kusama’s 2015 masterpiece The Invitation — from its exploration of neglected grief; its commentary on social cues and politeness; its methodical, slow-burn approach to psychological cult horror; to its showcase of the consequences of groupthink. However, while many of the film’s critics have overly concerned themselves with the arc of the male lead Will (Logan Marshall-Green), not enough credit is given to the film’s complex examinations of its supporting female characters. Their arcs are complicated by their grievances — some self-inflicted, some caused by outside circumstances (and oftentimes a combination of both).

While each of the five supporting female characters in the film have vastly different dispositions and personalities, they seem to share both an identity crisis and a lack of agency. Kusama, along with screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, leaves it primarily the viewer’s responsibility to infer their backstories. Whether this choice was intentional or simply a time management issue, the women of The Invitation deserve a little more attention.

The first of the five we meet is Will’s girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi). With her kind and calming demeanor, Kira serves as a strong support system to the anxious Will, as she accompanies him to the evening’s dinner party. On the car ride over, she is attentive to him, checking on him to make sure he’s okay, even when he clearly is not. She suggests they turn around and go home (a wise decision Will should have listened to), especially after she watches him mercy kill a coyote they hit on the road.

While their car ride conversation is centered on Will and his relationship to his ex-wife, little is told to us about Kira: we have no idea what she does for a living, nor if she, too, has ever been married prior to meeting Will. She is one of only two women of color in the film (along with Michelle Krusiec’s Gina); however, her race never plays a factor within the role, nor is it ever referred to or brought up in any capacity. She’s dressed impeccably, appropriately, so for the “official” dinner, she describes it as — some of the other party guests compliment her style and beauty. She’s warm and lovely but does more observing than partaking and talking. You’d have to imagine she’s pretty secure in her relationship with Will to agree to a dinner invitation to his ex’s home.

Kira and Will are greeted by the aforementioned Gina and Claire (Marieh Delfino). The two women are opposites, as Gina is undoubtedly the loudest and most outgoing of the women, while Claire is the most soft-spoken and introverted. Both women are there alone, as Gina’s partner hasn’t arrived yet, and Claire is seemingly single. Like Kira, Gina’s race is not a factor in her arc, and her profession is unknown — meanwhile, Claire is hinted at as being a teacher or professor when she mentions she got “tenure” to Will during a private conversation.

Gina is written as a party girl who salivates over a bottle of expensive wine and who the other friends laugh (both with and at) and mock her college hookups. Claire is painted as an archetypal loner girl whose meek and mild personality couldn’t possibly warrant her a boyfriend or husband; she’s described as “sexually awkward” by the others. Though the group seems to know each other well, and their digs at each other seem to be in good fun, the male guests still seem to judge both women. While Gina sticks around longer than Claire does, they both end up being fodder for punishment. 

In walks Will’s ex-wife Eden, dripping in glamour and elegance, as she practically floats when entering the room, in her long, white gown and scarlet lips. From moment one, she’s clearly overcompensating — her appearance, her overly affectionate greetings to her guests. Her smile feels more forced than Miss America’s, and we immediately sense that something else lurks beneath her stunning exterior. Through a series of Will’s flashbacks, we see that she attempted suicide after their son tragically died. After meeting her now-husband David (Michiel Huisman) during “grief therapy,” Will and Eden had divorced.

In the present timeline, her grief seems to be buried deep inside, as she waxes on about how much The Invitation “saved” her and gave her the will to live again: “I almost couldn’t keep on living. You know that, Will. But look at me now! I’m great. I’m happy.” The combination of Eden’s nervous laughter while simultaneously looking as if she’s about to burst into tears says otherwise. Eden is so passionate about her cult cause that she’s become easily agitated when anyone questions it, like when Ben (Jay Larson) takes a dig at it, and she slaps the shit out of him.

In the meantime, another random woman skulks about Eden and David’s home. Will catches the woman staring at him in her bedroom doorway, wearing just a t-shirt — sans pants. With a wicked smirk on her face, disheveled hair, and a ‘70s-style bush completely out in the open, the woman recalls a modern-day Manson Family member, a la Leslie Van Houten or Susan Atkins. We learn her name is Sadie, and that she’s a fellow member of The Invitation, and a friend of Eden and David’s that they brought home from the group’s retreat to Mexico — in which she admits to also always being sans pants and “going for it.” Sadie wants people to think she’s the epitome of being carefree and accepting, as she expresses her love to each of the guests — with some advances taken a little too far. Similar to our suspicions of Eden, Sadie also isn’t doing a great job at convincing us she’s secure and happy-go-lucky thus far.

The first of The Invitation’s major climactic moments in which the women’s senses of agency begin to crack is the party game scene, where everyone plays “I want (blank)” and expresses a desire they wish to fulfill that evening. Naturally, the game gets a tad risqué, so forthrightness increases, and inhibitions lessen — but their pleasures sour quickly. For reasons unknown, Sadie grabs Gina’s face and makes out with her, in a way that feels more provocative than sincere. Gina declares she wants cocaine and unabashedly starts inhaling it in front of the other guests. Eden wants to kiss Ben and lays one on him; Gina eggs her on and hoots and hollers while it’s happening. Kira is a mere observer to everything going on during this game— she makes no wishes and keeps her thoughts to herself. Claire’s only “want” is to leave, because she’s feeling uncomfortable with the game as if Eden and David are trying to convert her to their cause.

When Claire proceeds to bail, Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) accompanies her outside. She’s never to be seen again, and, even though the film never explicitly says, we know that her decision to exit a situation she wasn’t comfortable with ultimately led to her demise by the hands of Pruitt. Claire made a choice for herself and got woefully punished for it. Tragically, this is the first of several deaths that are caused by the women exerting independence in this narrative.

As everyone gathers around the table for the evening’s extravagant meal, the scene hones in on Will, as he has PTSD and an anxiety attack. Kusama antagonizes Kira during Will’s mania, showing her as distant and spacey when he tries to get her attention as if she hasn’t been supportive enough during this evening (she absolutely has). Is that her character’s only purpose — to merely be Will’s rock? Is she not allowed to treasure a few moments to herself in peace during this chaotic evening? That’s hardly selfish, but the way Kira’s identity is written and directed makes it seem as if that is her sole purpose for existing within this story: just a loyal shadow to the troubled man she’s dating.

Kira is so fiercely loyal to the troubled Will that she is consistently doing what she feels is best for him. She attempts to convince Will to calm down when she feels he’s getting out of line and is potentially embarrassing himself. She reminds him that it is okay to grieve his son but to also move forward in a way that is beneficial to his overall well-being: “Moving forward is not a betrayal, Will. We can help each other,” she says. However, for the first time in the course of the film, Kira’s loyalty to him is wounded, and her sense of self takes priority when he says that she simply cannot help him. She inches away from him in shock, gives him a “Really?!” look. Kira didn’t ask for any of this, and her tolerance of his rejection is completely justified and warranted.

The pinnacle of Invitation lies within its final, paralyzing 25 minutes, as the group begins to partake in a communal toast. Gina is the only guest to sip the wine before Will prevents the others from doing so, and she pays the ultimate price for it — by foaming at the mouth and dying on the dinner table. It feels punitive for Gina to be killed this way, as if her desire for enjoying herself and partying was to blame. This incident recalls an ‘80s slasher with moral-majority objectives: the promiscuous party girl who just couldn’t resist an expensive glass of wine is one of the firsts to die. From this point forward, no one is safe. Pruitt and David begin offing several of the other guests with a gun, while Kira and Will break free — but not totally unscathed.

In a violent attack, Sadie screams at Will for “ruining it!” after he averts the mass suicide, so she follows what are likely pre-established orders and starts attacking him and a couple of the other guests. It’s easy to dismiss Sadie as demented and psychopathic (not debating that); however, I’d also argue that she’s a brainwashed victim who is being controlled and manipulated by the authoritative men surrounding her: Dr. Joseph (Toby Huss), the founder/leader of The Invitation, as well as David and Pruitt. Her attempts at attention and affection, while desperate, also recall the movie trope of a sad orphan girl with daddy issues, a girl so lost and aimless that she seeks validation through others — especially from men. “I can make you like me so much … You can hurt me if you want,” she whispers to Will at one point, likely because she was abused by other men who talked her into thinking that was true.

Sadie isn’t the only one who takes a swing at Will in this final showdown. Eden shoots him and wounds him in the shoulder, luckily not fatally. Similar to Sadie, Eden’s agency (or lack thereof) is also conditioned by men — particularly by her husband David, who seems to have a firm lock on her decision-making process. David is perceived to be the devil in her ear, pressuring her to complete their mission, repeating that they’ve been “chosen.” Regardless, Eden still seems to possess a moral compass, as her pangs of guilt seemingly creep in, and she can barely keep the tears from streaming down her face as this horrible night endures.

Earlier in the evening, Will catches her pacing and acting anxious around the bottle of phenobarbital in their bedroom, as if she’s hesitant to go through with this plan. “This is wrong,” Eden sobs to the relentless David, as her friends are dying within the walls of their home. After she pulls the trigger on Will, she weeps an apology before aiming the same gun at her stomach. As she begs to be taken outside to the same spot where her son died, she invites empathy: a woman and mother so consumed by devastation, that she allowed The Invitation to strip her sense of identity, as well as her ability to grieve properly.

The last woman standing is Kira, as she’s the only one qgi sees a redemptive arc by the film’s end. She has fought back against Pruitt, beating the hell out of him so he couldn’t kill Will — proving that, indeed, her character was created solely to serve as a supportive arc for a man. But, we know that Kira’s more than that: she’s got the strength and willpower of a superhero. She’s a true definition of a final girl: fighting and suffering her way to the conclusion and proving to be tougher than her male counterparts. Even though her identity is still heavily linked to Will, she has gained the most agency in this narrative, and we’re grateful she’s still around to keep fighting on behalf of the other ladies who didn’t make it.

Of course, this is all coming from a place of absolute love and adoration for Kusama’s film. One of the handfuls of recent horrors that I’ve repeatedly agonized over and contemplated for days after each subsequent viewing, The Invitation is nearly perfect to me. Still, it has always left me craving more in terms of its treatment of these five fascinating women it has given to us. Kira, Gina, Eden, Claire, and Sadie may not have been given enough in those 100 minutes, but I’m still here hoping they have since found “the night that (their) faith is made real.” And by faith, I mean faith in themselves and their identities.