The Invisible Man; 2020; Horror; Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, suggested by the novel by H G Wells; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Harriet Dyer, Storm Reid; 2h5m; Rated R; Wide theatrical release Feb 28th.
It’s nearly four o’clock in the morning. Cecilia Cass (Elisabeth Moss) slides from her bed. Moving through a glass smart home, she tries to remain as quiet as she can as she dresses, gathers a bag and slips out of the heavily alarmed home. It’s almost as if she’s in The Quiet Place, trying to avoid the monsters who hunt by sound. She’s not being hunted by those monsters, but held by another: her abusive inventor husband Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Coen). This extended sequence jump starts The Invisible Man with intensity, immediately placing the audience within the shoes of a woman trying to escape abuse. This tension will hold and be unrelenting over the next two hours.
Thank Bowie Tom Cruise’s The Mummy failed. That god-awful third attempt at starting up the “Dark Universe”, the planned MCU-like Universal Monsters update, was the nail in the coffin for the wanna-be-franchise, causing the cancellation of a different Invisible Man update featuring Johnny Depp. Thus allowing Leigh Whannell’s toned-down seriously great update to the much adapted story. Adapted is a very loose word; like the four sequels to the 1933 James Whale directed, Claude Rains starring The Invisible Man, Whannell’s modern update is more “inspired by” the HG Wells 1897 novel than adapting it directly. All the better, as Whannell’s 2020 take on an invisible man terrorizing the people around him is a tense, unrelenting horror-drama. In updating the idea, he focuses on the real life traumas of abuse and gaslighting, through the additional lens of the sci-fi/horror of an invisible person delivering the trauma.
Eliabeth Moss’s Cecilia (often referred to only as Cee) is an invisible woman. Not literally but metaphorically. To those in her life, she’s barely heard from or seen. During their marriage, Adrian follows the stages of ritualistic, continued abuse: whittling down her sense of self by negging her, by slowing cutting her off from the outside, her friends, her family, herself. When she decides to escape, he’s told her she’s never going to be free of him, she’s his. Thus, when he fakes his suicide and begins to stalking her when she finally thinks she’s free, we feel for her. We worry for her. We know her truth, even if no one else believes it. Moss is astounding as the battered and broken woman, abused and gaslit for so long, it’d be hard for her break free even if there wasn’t a looming of her still-living husband over her new life, not just the lingering specter of horror and memory of other abuse survivors.
This is the crux of why The Invisible Man works so well. The drama is real, drawn from life, and heartbreaking true for too many people we all know. The horror is in the awful situation even removed from the fantastical element of invisibility, much like Alzheimer’s is scary enough without the possession in The Taking of Deborah Logan (go watch that on Netflix now, one of the best of the past decade). Whannell’s deft camera use, with slow pans and held shots sell Cee’s paranoia – leaving the audience looking in all corners of the frame, although we know perfectly well the man stalking her is invisible.
Those around Cee do as they can, but as is all too true in real situations, are often unable to help to the degree they need to. These other people in her circle are James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid) and Cee’s sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) They don’t see what she does, have not lived her life and situation and are unable to believe her new situation, seeing her not as a current victim, but one suffering from her former situation. I want to give a shout out to Dyer. Her portrayal of the straight-forward but weary of continually saving her sister Emily is “going to look out for big things”.
Focusing on Cee’s character over the spectacle of invisible Griffin makes the film strong. Floating objects and people fighting against things we can’t see are inherently silly, and eighty years out from the original adaptation, we’ve seen it done many times before. It was a worry going in that anything starting to build would be deflated the moment a floating object looked off or weird and I’d be ripped from the film. By using these moments sparingly with extreme care, I’m glad to say they work. When my sold-out audience reacted with shock instead of laughter during two pivotal scenes of people and objects being moved by invisible force, I knew it wasn’t just me completely invested. If the film was weak or had any cracks, either of these moments could have lost the audience and essentially lost the film.
Whanell keeps the whole film contained and simple. Where many may have gone with bigger, bolder, grander moments, he keeps things as lean and personal. Throughout his career, he has shown how strong he has been with limited locations and cast, whether it be Saw, Insidious, or 2018’s Upgrade (which also highlighted his great use of camera movement, also with Stefan Duscio’s cinematography).
I also need to remark on the amazing sound design. With so much of the film based around what we don’t see, sound is needed to fill in the gaps of movement and feel. These subtle, and not so when needed, touches build the mood and tone. Certain clicks and shuffles, whispers and movements. Beautiful.
The Invisible Man now currently sits at my third favorite film of the year, after Color Out of Space and Birds of Prey. It’s continually scary with an amazing performance at the center of a story of abuse, with increasing tension.