Unless you’re Clark Kent or Sue Richards, becoming invisible is an invitation for mischief. It would be so easy to mess around with someone, or perhaps stroll into a bank. The Invisible Man, a modern reinvention of a classic horror monster, takes another route entirely. He is not a prankster or an ordinary criminal, but a sadist who delights in psychological abuse. This film was written and directed by Leigh Whannell, who created the Saw and Insidious franchises. As opposed to torture porn or jump scares, Whannell puts us almost entirely in a victim’s point of view, one who is reeling from post-traumatic stress. Days after Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape, this thriller arrives with extra resonance and karmic fury.
A sure sign of a good director is someone who is able to create suspense through stillness, camera placement, and careful editing. That is certainly true of the intense opening act, set in a pristine modernist house overlooking the beach. Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) shares a bed with Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and after he falls asleep, her plan springs into action. She slips out of bed, grabs her Go Bag, and hops the fence. Her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) picks her up on the side of the road, and she barely escapes. All this unfolds silently, except for the crashing waves, and Whannell’s long cuts suggests that Adrian might wake at any moment (each added moment of silence is another chance she might be caught). It is tense without anything supernatural – the crisp, dark cinematography suggest the home is like a prison – so when Cecilia can barely make it outside shortly afterward, we share her terror.
After two weeks of staying with her cop friend James (Aldous Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), Cecilia gets good news from Emily: Adrian has killed himself. At first, she is relieved, and then strange things start to happen. She has the eerie sense she is being watched, and objects move or disappear. Suicide doesn’t seem like a realistic end to Adrian’s life – he is too narcissistic for that – and since he was an optics expert, Cecilia puts two and two together. It does not take long for her to realize Adrian is invisible, so the film’s anxiety is about whether anyone else will believe her before it is too late.
Elisabeth Moss a terrific actress who fiercely commits to her roles, and she brings plausible psychological realism to Cecilia. She is not a scream queen, but a fragile survivor who has no choice but to use Adrian’s capacity for manipulation against him. There are long sequences where Moss literally has nothing on camera to which she can react, and yet her coiled energy helps us feel Adrian’s needling presence. There is a version of this film where Adrian humiliates and gaslights Cecilia, and while that happens on a small scale, Whannell and Moss realize that full-on dehumanization would be too disturbing, too realistic. This film aspires for entertainment, albeit in a brutal form, so when Cecilia finally is able to spot Adrian’s weaknesses, Moss’ small facial tics ease the tension. At last, she might have the upper hand.
The Invisible Man uses #MeToo to elevate its premise. This milieu is not cynical, it’s more an acknowledgement of what survivors must face. It is a minor disappointment that the final acts devolve into familiar horror tropes. There are plot conveniences that do not withstand much scrutiny, to the point where the climax nearly falls apart the more you think about it. But what ultimately saves the film is Moss’ performance, and how Whannell always plays fair with the audience. With one notable exception, we always have as much information as Cecilia. Whatever terror we feel is through the film’s established rules, or its commitment to hiding Adrian. Whannell has the patience to draw out our anxiety: there are many stretches where seemingly nothing happens, and because the camera observes like a voyeur, there is the suggestion maybe we are looking through his eyes.
This film is an interesting contrast to The Lodge, another recent horror film that I hated. The Lodge plays a sick joke on the audience, with the directors exploiting audience goodwill, so they may laugh at us for caring in the first place. The Invisible Man cares about Cecilia, and the supporting characters behave like semi-plausible individuals in an extraordinary situation. Whannell knows how to turn the screws, leading to moments where I held my breath, so at first his climax feels like a bit of a letdown. Then again, Cecilia only needs a moment to show us the kind of woman she really is. Unlike Adrian – silent, hidden, always present – she is no monster.