A woman quickly and quietly gathers her belongings in the middle of the night. She’s in a beautiful, yet austere compound overlooking the ocean. Panic and terror alternately flick across her face as she flees into the night, trying to escape her abusive partner. No this isn’t the 1991 thriller Sleeping With The Enemy – it’s reboot (re-imagining?) of Universal’s monster classic The Invisible Man. This time brought to us by Blumhouse Films, writer/director Leigh Whannell (Upgrade), and star Elizabeth Moss.
In this Invisible Man, we aren’t watching a scientist driven insane by the side effects of his experiment. Instead we follow Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) as she is emotionally, psychologically, and eventually physically tortured to the brink of insanity by a man who is already a monster – already evil. This is The Invisible Man for 2020 – for the #MeToo era, and so he is Adrian Griffin: a celebrity billionaire tech CEO (à la Elon Musk) specializing in the ominously vague “optics”. The movie opens with her narrowly successful escape of his multi-million dollar compound. Shortly after she learns (via the news) that he has committed suicide. But as odd, unsettling things begin to happen around her, she quickly deduces that it is Adrian, not a ghost but alive and invisible, who is sabotaging her life. If only she could get someone else to believe her.
Moss’s stellar performance drives an otherwise somewhat thin story. She manages to be simultaneously raw, brittle, and resilient. And it must be noted that this isn’t her first foray into this type of role or even genre. If anything, this feels like variations on a theme. A more intimate Handmaid’s Tale. Her performance in The Invisible Man is so compelling and engaging to watch that I found myself frequently on the edge of my seat and flinching at every breath or creak of a door.
Speaking of which, Whannell does a terrific job crafting sequences that are so tense and full of fear that they become claustrophobic. A seemingly empty room becomes packed with dread. The jump scares are relentless. It’s only in the last half of the movie, when it’s revealed that it isn’t a potion or chemical compound that turns Griffin invisible, but a high-tech suit covered in thousands of tiny cameras that simultaneously project and record his surroundings, that the tone of the film shifts from horror to action/superhero. This shift in the execution of his invisibility left me feeling somewhat conflicted. I understand the impulse to update the means of his power based on our ever-evolving understanding of science (the original Invisible Man novel was written by H.G. Wells in 1897 after all), and I understand that my favorite (and sadly) unexplored aspect of it – that to be invisible he has to be butt naked – would be wildly inappropriate for a film about the horrors of domestic violence. But choosing to make it a suit that he can take on and off leaves the film feeling more like the origin story of a super villain rather than a monster. (Especially when the suit seems to inexplicably give him super strength and super agility.)
The suit is what also exposes how thin the actual story is. It never bothers to explain why he made the suit in secret in his home basement/laboratory. It never bothers to explain why he uses it only to torture her once she leaves. It never bothers to explain why he made it at all. It assumes that saying he works in “optics” and that he is abusive will be sufficient. The depiction of the suit itself also has flaws. Once it, and its many teeny tiny cameras, are revealed the cameras make sound as they constantly zoom in and out. Sounds that did not exist in any prior scene where he was supposed to be present. He was impossible to detect except for slight indentations on a chair or a blanket.
The story as a whole, feels very insular and contained. No one, aside from those in direct contact with Cecilia (her sister, the cop she is staying with, his daughter, her prison guards) are impacted. The larger world never enters into play. Which isn’t inherently a bad thing. But it does increase the feel of this movie, as I riffed in the beginning, being a ’90s thriller. It feels small and quick and weirdly fun, especially once the jump scares give way to superhero suits and fight sequences. It also feels very ’90s thriller in just how literal it is. There is zero subtext. Unlike a lot of monster-centric horror that uses the monsters or supernatural elements as metaphor for sensitive, often taboo, subjects like mental illness (The Babadook), or puberty (most werewolf movies), or sexual awakening (Dracula), Whannell’s titular Invisible Man is an abusive monster and Cecilia is suffering the effects of PTSD (her inability to leave the house, feeling constantly watched, etc.) while also still being literally tortured by him. The end. It feels relevant and applicable because harassment, gaslighting, and violence are already a thing that millions of women experience every day. However, unlike how real life oftentimes plays out, the film provides a satisfying and victorious ending for our protagonist Cecilia.
A message that, despite existing in a throwback film, feels very necessary in our tumultuous 2020.
The Invisible Man is in theaters now.