Thursday 30 November 2017

Cult Cinema #9: The Invitation (2015)

(Finally I got my computer working again. Ever cloned a hybrid SSD/physical hard disc? It takes ages. But now? Now comes catchup.)

Sometimes the thing with cults is that they're hard to spot, initially. You might see the signs, but you doubt yourself. You doubt your perceptions, all the more when it's someone you know. A friend or a loved one or an ex is sort of different somehow, starts waxing lyrical about how happy they are and the newthing they've found, there's always that suspicion there in the back of your mind that there's something wrong with it, and then you dismiss it. You do. People find ways to get through life, you tell yourself. And they'll wax lyrical about what they've got, their religion or their self-help thing, or their diet, or their running (and oh God, runners). And then they'll try to convince you that you need it too. And this is awkward. And this is uneasy, and I think it's a bit uneasy because we see someone we knew or thought we knew and they're not the person we knew, not really, not anymore. Something's changed. They're in lockstep now, saying things that seem pat, rehearsed, talking in formulae. It's as if something's been crushed in them, some drive to self-determination that is gone now.

And the signifier of that is the way that our newly-converted acquaintance proselytises. Evangelism makes people uneasy. It's a social faux pas, and the very fact that people who we thought we trusted break the unspoken rules of conversation to push whatever idea has overtaken them on us, that makes alarm bells ring. It's worst of all when it's an ambush, when it becomes apparent that someone who we used to think had a genuine regard for us now engineers a meeting, a visit, or even a party for the sole reason of evangelising.

This happens. For example, UCCF, the organisation that controls evangelical Christian Unions in British universities, has actually in the past published material encouraging student members to do just that, to have parties for the sake of telling people just about Jesus. Looking back, it's how I can tell I was never really a proper evangelical, because the little switch in my brain that says "this is morally and ethially wrong" never got switched off. I never managed to do it. I couldn't. Although I've been at proselytising parties more than once, presumably because I was considered an ally of the host, and I can tell you they have been some of the most painfully awkward experiences of my life. Friendships have ended over these things. 

Karyn Kusama's 2015 film The Invitation deals with this exact phenomenon. It portrays an act of ambush evangelism; and it plays on that fear, that the converted friend might have given themselves over to something awful, and the doubt that it hasn't. When everyone else is saying, "Wait, they're a little weird, but honestly it's still them, isn't it?" do you still go with your gut or do you make a scene?

You're all so welcome.

If you have not seen this film, and you should, it's great, be warned that as ever this piece is going to reveal twists and surprises. But it's on Netflix right now, so you have no excuse.  
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are heading up into the Hollywood hills for a dinner party. We gather from their conversation that Will is nervous, that it's hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huismans, who I knew as Cal from Orphan Black). It's all the old gang together, for the first time in two years or more, and it's in the house where Will and Eden lived.

Will has a slightly lost look to him. We'll find out later on that his marriage ended after the tragic, accidental death of their son. He wanders through the hideous, maze-like McMansion he used to live in and all sorts of memories are triggered in him, memories and inevitably flashbacks of a traumatic event from which Will has not recovered.

And it's Will's evident trauma that makes his suspicion of Eden and David's awakening even more awkward. Eden and David have joined the Invitation. Most of the people in the room have heard of it. It's a self-help thing, or it's a religious thing. It's a fad.

On the way to the party, Will's car hits a coyote, and Will is forced to put the thing out of it's misery. And he's shaken by this, not ready to see old friends, not receptive to the banter of people who are all more comfortable with each other than he is with them.

And Eden and David are a little... weird. Aside from their friends, they have invited an odd, damaged young woman called Sadie (Lindsey Burge), who makes it clear to everyone in the room that she's sexually available, and a big, heavy older man called Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), and neither of these people belong here. Except that they're members of the Invitation. They're here for the sell. 
Will: You look different.
Eden: I am different. I'm free. All that useless pain, it's gone. It's something anyone can have, Will. And I want you to have it too.
And that sounds like an awkward piece of dialogue, but here's the thing: people who are deep into evangelical religion really do talk like that, really do trot out the clich├ęs. And Eden is behaving really strangely. But as Miguel (Jordi Vilasuso) says, they're weird, but this is LA.

They show the party a recruitment video, and it looks like every religious video you've ever seen, a puff piece for Dr Joseph, the Invitation's founder, which then segues into film of someone dying. And everyone's a bit weirded out, so they try to break the ice with something like a game of truth or dare, but this too goes wrong, when the truths told take a darker turn. Someone leaves.
It's like you're trying to sell us something.
Will's suspicion is all tied up with his trauma, and he doesn't even know for sure himself if he's right or not. He's shaken from the thing with the coyote, and he's having literal flashbacks, and the fight or flight reaction he's having is taking him over. He becomes sure there's something very, very wrong. But he can't express what it is.

But part of his conviction as to why this is very, very wrong is all tied up with Eden's weird serenity. She keeps saying that she's completely over the loss of their son; but he's convinced that's not right, because he's cut to pieces. It's broken him. And this is the precise reason that everyone else is so skeptical of him. Because he's not himself healthy. Will's reactions are trauma reactions. And trauma reactions, as I am sure that more than a few of my readers  know, are horrible things that can seriously mess you up and mess up the way you respond to a situation. Everything Will perceives – the flashbacks, the weird loss of hearing and judgement, the panicky outbursts – points to past trauma, as well it should.

And this is the other part of what makes cult members so unsettling: they tend to have something that we need. It's not a loss of heart or autonomy: it's a trade-off. Give up part of your will, and you can have peace. Eden and David's religion is so creepy because, initially, it seems like it's been healing for them. Eden genuinely doesn't seem to have that grief and trauma still (and it's made clear in the film that she at some point most certainly did), and yes, part of that is that she's on tranquillisers, but that's not proof that her faith is insincere.

Of course, there is something going on, and The Invitation's genius is not to frame the shoe dropping as a Big Reveal. How it drops, that's another matter, a genuinely shocking moment that comes out seconds after another shock: it seems that Will may have done something terrible and violent and wrong, except that he hasn't, and while one person was injured, another died without anyone noticing.

And it was a death cult. All the strange behaviour feeds a death cult that extends far beyond this one ugly house. The closing scenes of the film give us all we need to know to fill in the gaps, and to suggest that Hollywood itself, Hollywood as a whole, is part of this. 
Come back in.
Hollywood has always prey to fads and cults, from Gwyneth Paltrow's ridiculous Goop initiative to Jenny McCarthy's antivaccination obsession to the ascendant status of Scientology. A couple of weeks ago, the story broke that Alison Mack (mainly known as Chloe from Smallville) was alleged to be a member of a self-help group that recruits, brainwashes and brands women as literal sex slaves for a cult leader, and when I saw The Invitation, I naturally thought of that story, of the sheer lunacy of it, how easily self-help jargon slides into sexual slavery. Sadie has been conditioned to offer herself unconditionally and in any possible way to everyone she meets, lives in Eden and David's house and when she's first glimpsed, she's walking around in the background with nothing on below her waist. She's being framed as a cult sex slave, just as Pruitt is given the role of cult enforcer, a man who might not naturally be trained to violence, but who is nonetheless capable of it (a similar character appears in Midnight Special, which I'll take a look at soon).

Religions, and cults, their metastatised growths, don't generally these days make much more than a token effort to reach poor people. Christianity in the UK is very much the pursuit of the middle class; the poorest people in the UK are almost entirely functionally atheists, and have been for decades now. Donald Trump's baffling support among evangelicals is from the suburban bourgeoisie; poor people out in the real sticks don't vote at all (and that's why no one bothers to canvas there). No, cults especially go for people who can afford it. Affluent people, with spare time. Poor people are too busy trying to survive to be able to have the time and money for religion (and no one ever seems to get their heads around how much work being genuinely poor is). Religion these days is for the people who have the leisure time to devote to it. You've got everything you want materially, and a lot of time? You get bored; you start looking for something new.

Hollywood is fertile for cults. Because that's what the idle rich do, they join cults. But Kusama's film in its closing scene suggests that it's more than that, that Hollywood itself is in thrall to a death cult,  that Hollywood is in the midst of a slow mass suicide with its fads and cults as its means of exit.