We all grieve.
Some let out a haunting maternal wail, as Annie Graham does in Hereditary. Others opt for the creative route, putting their pain into their music like The Changeling‘s John Russell. A myriad of cultural and personal factors determine how an individual will handle the death of a loved one. As far as gender goes, men in cinema tend to swallow their mourning, while women are usually depicted externalizing that same heartache. It makes sense; in our society, the binary tends to be coded that way. Men specifically are encouraged to wall off emotions, to “man up.” Onscreen, this can cause “mangst”, that brand of manpain-induced angst that the pouting hero unleashes upon innocents around him, most often a female character. The Invitation is unique by way of its engagement with a grieving father who does “man up” upon first glance. The sleight-of-hand is in the film’s utilization of every storytelling avenue to bring the inside out, thereby bringing a tangibility to a closed-off archetype.
Karyn Kusama’s 2015 horror film is, at its core, about grief. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) drive up to the Hollywood Hills home of his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) for a dinner they’ve been invited to. Eden is hosting alongside her new husband David (Michiel Huisman), whom she met at a “support group” in Mexico. They’ve invited several guests to their get-together, which will be the first time any of their friends have seen the pair in a couple of years. It’s hard for Will to make this trip, and over the course of the taut 100-minute runtime, it becomes clear why. Through a series of flashbacks, Will recalls the accidental death of his 5-year old son Ty and his then-wife Eden’s subsequent suicide attempt. For him, this dinner is a confrontation with the source of his pain.
How does he deal with that pain? For the first third of the film, Will seems to be embodying the sort of “suck it up” stoicism that the vlogosphere purveyors of true manliness love to push. He’s quiet and avoidant on the subject, almost robotic. Framing and staging support the characterization; Kusama works in tandem with DP Bobby Shore to visually isolate Will from the rest of the guests early and often. Without it, he would have seemed more callous than conflicted.
From the moment he walks into the house, Will is reminded of his late son. He immediately envisions Ty playing with toys at the living room table, but says nothing aloud about it. When asked plainly how he’s handling everything, Will says that he doesn’t know. Kira mentions that he has been self-destructive in the past. The exposition here is a necessary supplement in such a sparse and ambiguous movie. Likewise, Will’s surface-level silence could be considered unfeeling were it not for an unorthodox script that immerses the reader in the internal emotions the protagonist is grappling with. Every few minutes, screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi are sure to display Will treading sensitive waters with vague flashbacks and sensory overload.
In a nutshell, Will is vulnerable. He’s had trouble dealing with his the loss of his son and the divorce from his wife, and The Invitation offers a way to process that.
The Invitation is explained as a “communion” and a “support group,” but it’s pretty plain that it walks and talks like a cult. They even have a recruitment video in which the Marshall Applewhite-esque leader, Dr. Joseph, claims to know “ways to rewire our experiences with trauma.” He encourages his followers to embrace death as a way of transcending anguish and reuniting with dead loved ones. To boot, this advice is dispensed alongside footage of a terminally ill woman taking her last breaths onscreen. Will and the rest of the non-Invitation guests are gobsmacked. They just watched someone die at a dinner party.
Eden, for her part, explains the cult’s approach to “useless” pain: “All those negative emotions: grief, anger, depression, is all just chemical reactions. It’s entirely physical, and completely changeable. You can actually expel those emotions from your body and live the life you want to live.” After the recruitment video, she breathlessly sighs that The Invitation has freed her from her pain after “what happened to us.”
Will is having none of it. For the first time in the film, Will shows external emotion regarding the events that traumatized him. He forcefully insists that she doesn’t excuse herself from grieving. Voice trembling, he asks how she could just move on so easily. Later in the film, he elaborates:
“It’s a fucking brainwash. Our son died, Edie. And you are trying to ignore it. It meant something when he died, and don’t you try to erase that. Ty was real. It is real.”
Will’s outburst didn’t come out of nowhere; the emotional groundwork had been meticulously laid for the past hour, from script to screen. After it all hits the fan and the dinner party goes very sour, very fast, another earned moment occurs for the tortured hero. Without spoiling the third act, it can be said that Eden reaches an understanding with her ex-husband. She confesses that she misses Ty, and Will finally reaches an emotional catharsis. He lets forth a cascade of tears, something he had previously done only alone. Rather than swinging wildly from brooding to blubbering, his weeping is a fully earned sunset of the arc.
As Will’s friend Tommy says, “We’re all trying to figure out how to go on, here.” There are countless ways to go on when the unthinkable happens, and how Will chooses to face and feel his grief is painful but preferable to the monstrous alternative in The Invitation. In their screenplay, Hay and Manfredi provide ample space in its margins for Will to process his grief, and Kusama strikes a tightrope balancing act between show-and-tell to bring his inner turmoil to an accessible surface for the viewer. Never let it be said that a silent, recessive male character can’t have depth; it can be done, and done well.