[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 18.]
There is only one story, told truthfully or distorted. Once reality has been shaded in a particular direction, there is no escaping it. One can deny it or affirm it, but one can’t pretend that it never happened. So whether one denies the Christian story or believes it, it is impossible to escape.
I don’t know if The Invitation (available on Netflix) was conceived to be a denial of or an attack on the generally religious or specifically Christian idea of an after-life, that there is “a better place after this one,” but there is much more beneath the surface of this “horror” film than is usual.
And for Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), there is much more than just an invitation to a party at this house. They know it’s the house of Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), but it’s been two years since they’ve last seen each other. Why this party, and why now?
Eden and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman), try to play the party off as simply a reunion of old friends, who used to be together regularly, but Will is never quite convinced. The viewer (at least, this viewer) sympathizes completely with Will. The Invitation has been described as a horror for introverts, and that’s certainly part of it. A party you don’t want to be at, with people who bring up semi-buried, painful memories, and then two additional, random people? Not a party I’d want to attend.
Will’s wavering is obvious throughout the first half of the film. He can’t decide whether it’s simply the strangeness of Eden and David’s invitation and warm welcome, or if something malicious really is going on. He finds pills, he thinks one of the other guests is missing, he explodes, but there is always an explanation. (Just when he is convinced that Troy has arrived and is now missing or murdered, the doorbell rings and Troy shows up.) The Invitation pushes the reveal to the last possible minute, so that even the viewer’s suspicions are allayed.
When, finally, the wine glasses are being passed around solemnly, and Will can’t take any more, shattering glasses out of his friends’ hands, we discover what Eden and David have been planning all along. It’s almost shocking in its suddenness, after all the denials, but they have given hints, from the video of a woman dying, to the talk of being free from all the pain and grief and bitterness of this world.
And who hasn’t thought, at least in certain lonely or somber moments, that it would be better, as St. Paul says, to be away from this body and at home with the Lord? It is a particularly Christian desire, the longing for another, better, made-right world. And so it is that we comfort the mourning with platitudes about the deceased being “in a better place,” or “free from pain.” Well, maybe.
That, in the end, is the theme of The Invitation: what do we do with the pain and suffering that we experience in this life? Can we finally be free of it? Maybe death is the only way past it, and maybe if we hasten death, we can all get there a little bit quicker, to be reunited with those whom we have lost. That temptation, as so many suicides demonstrate, is a very real one.
Will, however, refuses to accept it, even as he realizes that the delusion has overtaken far more people than just David and Eden. There is a Fight Club-like moment at the end, as everything goes to hell, when Will and Kira feel for each other’s hand, looking out over the valley filled with sirens and helicopters and gun shots and screams. How will they live in a world filled with so much destruction?
But isn’t that always the question of clear-eyed realists? What will we do with the world as it is? The constructors of theodicies try to defend and justify God’s action by speculation; those who believe there is no after-life will put all their hope eggs in the basket of this world, trying to make it as good as possible for whatever time there is left.
The Christian, however, isn’t interested in defending God’s ways to man, as if God were in the dock and needed us as His (underpaid and overworked) public defenders. And the Christian knows that this creation is not all there is, while also recognizing that the longing for things to be put right is true and good. It is, in fact, the longing of creation itself, and that putting-right is part of the Christian proclamation: God saying, in Christ, “Look, I am making all things new.”
Even so, this message has often been distorted and narrowed into simply being free of this world and this body so that I can be in a better place. David and Eden and Pruitt (played innocently and menacingly at the same time by John Carroll Lynch) and Sadie and their death cult are the embodiment of this distortion and narrowing. And some Christians have actually helped such thoughts along by focusing entirely on “going to heaven,” while ignoring the resurrection of the body and the life interesting, which is the actual goal and end of the Christian life.
It is the distortion of the Christian message that promotes a creation-denying—even destructive—understanding of this world and the people who are in it. But if there is a (re)new(ed) creation coming, then this one is also good in the eyes of its Creator. If there are newly glorified bodies coming to us, then these bodies must matter currently as well. If anyone doubts the goodness of creation in itself, before and beneath the corruption of sin and death, they deny God as Creator and Jesus’ own assumption of a physical body, in which He both died and was resurrected, ascended and will come again.
The Invitation shows us a realistic, well-conceived world, where the gnostic denial of the goodness of creation and its redemption holds sway completely. That is the sort of world that we, like Will and Kira, should do everything we can to oppose.