To discover some brilliant adaptions of H.G. Wells’ 1897 novella The Invisible Man, one needn’t look further than Universal Picture’s 1933 production and its 1940 sequel The Invisible Man Returns. From then on, the new installments became campier and campier, and even comedic: from The Invisible Woman (1940) to Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). When the monster movie craze of the 30’s and 40’s died out, the property remained relatively untouched, save for a few tv series, until the disastrous Kevin Bacon-starring Hollow Man (2000).
The idea of a white male acting without impunity has slowly faded into an unstable theme, at least, artistically (though it still regularly crops up). A post-MeToo remake of The Invisible Man from a male director and screenwriter would initially appear fraught with pitfalls. Nevertheless, Leigh Whannell’s recreation is intense, unsettling, and nerve-racking, and features an incredible performance from Elisabeth Moss that continues her ascent as one of the most dynamic actresses in cinema.
The Invisible Man opens in a
prison home composed of glass and concrete. Indeed, surrounded by tall cement walls and an array of security cameras, Cecilia Cass (Elisabeth Moss) and Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) live in the sparsely furnished modernist compound. Adrian is a leading inventor in optics, and a trash human being. Abusive and controlling, he’s spent years scheduling how often Cecilia sleeps, what she eats, and when and where goes. He’s also beaten her. On this night, the night we meet the pair, Cecilia escapes: disabling the house’s surveillance, taking a go-bag, scaling the concrete wall, and running down a hill to her sister Emily’s (Harriet Dyer) car, and to safety.
From the jump, Whannell’s thriller is a quiet film, adorned with a pristine sound design. Conventionally relying on jump scares, sometimes begging for them to excess, in the empty spaces, an understated mechanical sound fills the uncomfortable void. In the meantime, Cecilia discovers shelter in James’ (Aldis Hodge) home with his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid): where she notices only slightly perceptible changes and noises—an out-of-place chair or a burner turned on high without her influence. The unexplained occurrences are initially disturbing, but “easily” discounted. Because news arrives of Adrian committing suicide. Even so, his presence remains.
That’s the all-too true horror of Whannell’s thriller, the remains of abuse. The paranoia involved. And the ghosts of trauma. Initially, at James’ home, Cecilia can’t even go to the mailbox without feeling watched. It’s a scene that almost crumbles due to the odd forgiving humor James uses, nevertheless, it demonstrates the unseen scars survivors of abuse retain long after their physical and mental mistreatment has ceased. Moreover, Whannell’s screenplay relies on the varied ways women are gaslit.
In these instances, Hodge continues a string of workmanlike-to-great performances (from Straight Outta Compton (2015) to his amazing turn in Clemency (2019)). Here, as the understanding yet oft-dismissive “ally,” his character mirrors the many men who believe women only when they see the top-soil of abuse, but rarely when it’s underlying, yet no-less true. Reid also succeeds as the plucky teen. Though considering her past efforts in A Wrinkle in Time (2018) and Euphoria (2019), her talents aren’t nearly as used by Whannell as they could be, here.
Even so, Moss once again commands in the archetype of the broken and abused, one she’s often crafted to traumatic ends in Her Smell (2019) and The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-2020). One day, I’d love to see her in some lighthearted rom-com or an easeful picture. But there’s no doubting her uncanny ability to portray the emotional and psychological breakdown of a person. Much of her performance in the role of Cecilia finds fertile ground in her physical presence, internally exercising her character’s fears, which often find their way into her unsteady patter of speech or her hunched and pensive posture. She makes real the more conventional and sometimes off-putting portions of The Invisible Man, like the incredulous moment Sydney is supposedly punched by Cecilia, though there’s no earthly way she could have. Or the plotline involving pregnancy, which isn’t fully thought through. And of course, there are portions that could be extremely triggering. Nevertheless, Moss shoulders it all.
The unseen facade of The Invisible Man will deteriorate if prodded too hard, specifically the plot. Nevertheless, the thriller eats away at the nerves. Gripping and undoubtedly smart, Whannell’s horror flick restores the anxiety readers initially felt in 1897 (though for vastly different reasons). And most of all, in its later catharsis made resonate, The Invisible Man interlocks the real-world distress felt by many women, while giving face to the demons men would rather think only exist in handfuls today.