The stilted interactions and awkward rhythms of dinner parties naturally lend themselves to the creation of suspense. The Invitation is a recent film that exploits this very effectively—the characters sense that something is deeply wrong, but good manners require them to stay, even as all their instincts tell them otherwise.
How Do You Know Chris? also plays on this dynamic, telling the story of a wealthy, mysterious young man, Chris (Luke Cook), who invites a seemingly randomly selected group of people to a dinner party at his fancy apartment in Melbourne. Some of the group are old friends and enemies who he hasn’t seen in years. One he met in the laundromat just that morning. They arrive to find Chris himself absent; as they get progressively drunker, their individual histories with Chris are developed, and the film’s titular question becomes all-consuming.
Melbourne filmmaker Ashley Harris‘ film works best in its opening act, when the mystery of why these people were selected and what precisely Chris wants from them helps build a sense of considerable unease and tension. The film is aided by solid performances and writing which, despite some clunky lines, does well to draw out the dynamics between the different characters. There are also some nice nods to the time period—the film is set in the year 2000, and the characters dress appropriately. There are some funny references to the impending Sydney Olympics and to Liquid Television, a cartoon anthology series which used to air on SBS and which my parents didn’t let me watch.
The film begins to falter once Chris himself arrives. As a character he does not have any more depth than the rest of the film’s ensemble—which is fine for the other characters, but not enough for the figure around whom all this mystique has been developed.
About an hour in it becomes clear that the film has not been preparing a knockout revelation as to why exactly he has gathered this group in his swanky home. The reason is instead telegraphed from such a distance that the film loses all tension. The tone becomes maudlin and the pace rather plodding. Chris is meant to be a tormented figure, but it’s not entirely clear why, and the film never seems to decide whether or not we’re meant to feel sorry for him or despise him for his little game.
At times How Do You Know Chris? feels like a play which somebody got an opportunity to film, rather than something written for the cinema. It would work better if it was quite a bit shorter (and it comes in just under 90 minutes). Even if the premise is rather thin, there are some inklings of a good story. But it ultimately feels a bit too much like a bad dinner party.
How Do You Know Chris? opens in select cinemas today.