The Invisible Man opens on Elisabeth Moss’ Cecilia as she makes a carefully planned escape from her abusive husband in the dead of night, tactically leaving the bed they share and shutting down the high tech alarm system that safeguards their secluded home by the ocean. It’s quiet and we know the jump scares are inevitable as she scampers around the darkened house, any wrong move can sabotage her plan. The fast-beating tension penetrates effectively because we’re in Cecilia’s headspace, anxiously hoping for her escape. We feel her terror. But we’re provided no context as to why she should be so frightened by the man she shares a bed with, no flashbacks to set up the anguish he’s caused her. We simply take Cecilia’s in-moment terror as all the needed proof. We take her word for it. This trust we find in the alleged victim will define the rest of the movie.
Having escaped the clutches of husband Adrian, Cecilia takes solace in the home of her best friend James and his daughter, Sydney. The trauma from whatever horrors Adrian must have inflicted linger strong as Cecilia can barely muster the courage to step outside her new shelter. But the good news she soon receives – Adrian has suddenly killed himself and left behind millions of dollars for her – quickly becomes a nightmare when an unseeable presence begins exacting psychological torment on Cecilia. Could she be loosing her mind? Let’s just say it’s no coincidence that Adrian was a genius scientist who specialized in optics.
Drawing from the over 120 year old H. G. Wells tale about a man who uses science to turn himself invisible and scare the hell out of everyone around him, writer/director Leigh Whannell not only finds a way to reinvent this classic concept as a timely metoo metaphor, he also manages to create a truly memorable horror super-villain. Adrian doesn’t just want revenge on Cecilia for leaving him, he wants to see her suffer in all the worst imaginable ways. He grants her the relief she aches for by letting her believe he’s dead. He awards back her agency in life by giving her the money that she in turn donates to friend Sydney’s college fund. He endows the picture perfect life to Cecilia, if only for the sadistic enjoyment of stripping it all away. And he does it as any great villain would, by striking at the heart, turning Cecilia’s support system against her and destroying her very identity to the point of seemingly no return.
The notion of trusting in what your own eyes can’t see is handled with superb affect by Whannell who, through the first half of the movie, elicits unease from the simplicity of the unknown. Casually turning the camera from Cecilia’s mundane actions to a vacant corner of the room triggers serious anxiety. At least we can keep an eye on how Michael Myers is about to strike when he’s face to face with his victim, here we’re left with nothing but imagination. That is, until Elizabeth Moss brings the hard-hitting reactions. No stranger to the portrayal of female subjugation with the likes of Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, Moss is the ideal fit, now able to fight back in more empowering ways than ever that only this kind of genre fiction can provide a platform for.
Benjamin Wallfisch’s score provides an arresting presence for the invisible man. Not unlike what Hans Zimmer’s stress induced strings brought to the joker in The Dark Knight, the phantom-like theme for this movie equips a suffocating inevitability to the unseeable evil. The action sequences in the ladder half, featuring an invisible man who’s invisibility is wearing off, gracefully transitions us from horror to action-thriller. Well choreographed and filmed with few cut aways, it’s no surprise Whannell nails these scenes given that his last film, Upgrade displayed a practical mastery for adrenaline-induced action.
If there’s a gripe to be had though, it’s with how the script forcefully transmits Cecilia’s isolation. After the invisible Adrian tricks best friend James into thinking Cecilia assaulted his daughter, James takes off with his only child in a protective rage, leaving Cecilia alone at his home for the remainder of the day and the entirety of the night. Given his knowledge and sympathy for Cecilia’s abuse up to this point, it’s hard to buy James leaving his supposedly mentally unstable friend alone for so long. A similar contrivance occurs with Cecilia’s sister shortly after. It’s all made to sell the idea that even those closest to a female victim are quick to victim blame, but such an important insight deserves less extreme and more finesse. The subtler approaches to this observation throughout – moments when Cecilia’s friends listen to her theory of an invisible Adrian with skeptic confusion, wanting to trust her but hesitant to – are far more effective in driving the point home.
The fact that we’re provided no flashbacks to Cecilia’s abusive relationship with Adrian may at first glance seem like a flaw, but in hindsight works to inform a legitimately strong ending. One that, without spoiling anything, will force audiences to question just how much they believe their heroin and the morality behind the ultimate justice served. The answers will very from person to person and gender to gender, but the ambiguity we’re left with is an undoubtedly clever way to start a conversation regarding society’s response to female victimhood.
This one just hit theaters over the weekend. Check it out if you want to see Peggy Olsen advertise an all new line of crazy, MC Ren duke it out in a rigged fight with an invisible man, some genuinely unexpected narrative twists and the one minute removal of stained paint from a suit that even Billy Mays would be shocked to witness.