Director: Leigh Whannell
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid
Abuse and abusers come in many forms but the root objective, insidiously, seems most often to be control. Control of another person. It’s one of the more despicable traits to have defined humanity for centuries. Leigh Whannell’s bold reinterpretation of The Invisible Man shines a glaring spotlight on this tendency, but its focus is squarely on the victim rather than the perpetrator.
We barely get to see millionaire optics specialist and all-round sociopath Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), save for a few glimpses of him sleeping during the tense opening. Instead we follow Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) as she makes a stealthy escape from his beach-view estate. Already Whannell wields the negative spaces in his frames like weapons, inciting paranoia before we’ve even any concrete reason to feel any. We know to treat the situation seriously because Cecilia does. Her urgency is credible.
Said credibility will be tested. While staying with police officer James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), Cecilia learns that her controlling and abusive former boyfriend has committed suicide. Not long after that, however, she starts to suspect someone is watching her, tricking her… sabotaging her life. Adrian was manipulative in their relationship. She ran from him. She escaped. Or did she?
The title of the movie is like a spectre over the first hour of the film. We’ve signed on implicitly and with this Whannell manipulates us just as Adrian manipulates Cecilia. For a modern horror movie, The Invisible Man is commendably restrained… for a time. During this sustained first act, we’re invited to witness a thoroughly disturbing example of ‘gaslighting’ – the process of using psychological games to make someone appear as though they’re crazy. To others and to themselves. Gaslighting is one of the creepiest forms of abuse, in part because it is so utterly dependent on premeditation. It’s the planned destruction of another person. Moss’ performance allows us to see how it would feel like to be on the receiving end.
Someone really needs to give this gal a break and cast her in a romcom.
I jest. Moss is bankable for just this kind of measured intensity. I’d point you in the direction of Alex Ross Perry’s under-seen Queen of Earth for another fine example of her ability to chart an emotional descent. And then of course there’s her more famed work on the recurring series The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s a great casting choice. Whannell asked for her input on set to ensure that he wasn’t overtly applying a more masculine gaze; a commendably thoughtful act of shared ownership in service of the film overall. The result is some very fine work and a particularly empathetic piece of horror filmmaking.
The Invisible Man is such a dangerous premise to take on because it is inherently silly. Whannell – whose work is prone to a level of smirking humour – plays this one with stony seriousness. He doesn’t get too bogged down in the mechanics of his sci-fi conceit. In fact, the less we know on that side of things the better. Effects are used sparingly, and I’d argue that the film is more intimidating when Whannell simply leaves us with an ’empty’ and inactive frame, allowing our imaginations to run wild.
In a sense its not too far removed from the ghost stories that have littered cinemas for the last decade – including Whannell’s own Insidious films – but the human menace behind it all is far, far more unnerving than any demon or spectre. Having achieved so much in this first hour, The Invisible Man starts to mutate. Cecilia’s battle to legitimise her claims – and Adrian’s perverse joy in framing her – repeatedly brings to mind the downward spiral of Candyman but, in terms of tone, I’d be more inclined to cite Ridley Scott’s Hannibal.
Which is to say The Invisible Man morphs from a quiet chamber piece into an audacious slice of barmy pulp fiction. Whannell’s work is redolent with twists (the Saw franchise, his awesome prior feature Upgrade). In keeping with this preoccupation, the latter half of the film takes particular joy in pulling the rug out, deploying sharp pivots to make us say to ourselves, “Okay… what now?” This escalation is a lot of fun – a treat after the oppressive work that got us there – but it also feels like it slightly cheapens what was working so well.
I also can’t help but feel as though, in spite of Whannell’s best efforts, the film isn’t just a little too exploitative of Cecilia’s pain. There’s material here which may prove particularly triggering not just to victims of abuse, but also those who have experienced suicidal tendencies. The trashier back-end comes dangerously close to using these things simply to power forward its more gleefully coiled narrative.
Still, by and large, Whannell gets away with having his cake and eating it. His film is sleek and technically very impressive, and in Moss it has a star turn worth boasting about. I’d urge viewers not to think too hard about the logistics of some of what happens here – it’s a film about an invisible man after all – and just experience the ride. A film of two halves, undoubtedly, but both are well worth your time.