The Invisible Man (2020)

By reimagining a Universal Monsters classic to tackle the universal monster of domestic abuse, writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man certainly constitutes a two-hour trigger warning. Thankfully, it’s also two hours of trigger discipline.

Along with persuasive work from his cast and visual effects / stunt professionals, Whannell successfully eliminates his assailant from visible space. But never for a second does he let you forget how large he looms, even when he’s not posing an immediate, and often merciless, threat.

The Invisible Man is a far cry from the existential questions that eluded Whannell altogether in his last film, Upgrade, content to giddily stretch a grindhouse skin over an AI skeleton with no philosophical punch whatsoever. And boy, is it an even greater improvement over the idiotic uselessness of 2014’s Dracula Untold and 2017’s The Mummy, Universal’s addle-brained attempts to launch an interconnected “Dark Universe” from its stable of creatures. Rather than offering up yet another mindless, middling resurrection of intellectual property, Whannell’s The Invisible Man establishes a bedrock of sadly relatable — and utterly terrifying — ideas and instincts. This movie needs not escalate into horror. It lives there from the outset.

And while a modern-day explanation for the villain’s method of invisibility is certainly important — sensibly updated for a post-fact, deep-fake world without getting in over its head — the contemporary context of this remake matters more. After a near-century of adaptations of H.G. Wells’ work, here’s one that fixes its gaze not on a man who loses his mind and body, but the woman who lost herself to said man’s mind and body well before any scientific breakthrough.

It’s half past 3 a.m., and Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is on the verge of an overdue escape from years of mental, verbal and physical abuse at the hands of Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) — a renowned scientific mind in the field of optics. 

Cecilia’s exodus bears the hallmarks of precision planning and nigh-impossible odds as it might from Alcatraz, so prison-like is Adrian’s oceanside mansion. Working in perfect tandem with composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s squonky bursts and spooky strains, sound designers P.K. Hooker and Chris Terhune establish the film’s baseline sonic scheme — one that shifts, often on a whim, from threnodic rush to taciturn void as the static might in Cecilia’s long-besieged mind.

Although not without complications, Cecilia makes it out with help from her estranged sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer). She then goes off the grid at the modest, suburban-San Francisco home of James (Aldis Hodge of Brian Banks), a childhood friend turned cop, and James’s college-hopeful daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid of A Wrinkle in Time). Two weeks pass, but the nervousness in Cecilia’s eyes hasn’t dimmed a bit. She can barely put a foot outside, so certain Adrian will be there to immediately whisk her away.

James and Sydney’s warmth and patience counter, and comfort, Cecilia’s continued cacophony, and Hodge & Reid are afforded the real estate to render them real people rather than pins set up for third-act mayhem to knock down. Given where the story goes, there could stand to be a deepened explanation of Cecilia and Emily’s frayed relationship, but few incarnations of this story devote such an effort to characters at the edges.

It’s not long before Cecilia learns Adrian has died by his own hand — leaving her $5 million conditional on proof of mental competency and a clean criminal record. There is, of course, a statement Adrian has left; even in death, such men will insist on the last goddamn word. But Cecilia won’t hear it. She’s already thinking about her first gift from the $100,000 monthly dispensation — a $10,000 deposit to Sydney for college, which she’ll make for 12 months. 

This is a big gesture, but Whannell is more attuned to the necessarily small-stepped beginnings of Cecilia gaining her identity back — such as the small, but full and fresh, rack of new clothing she buys for herself. And even Cecilia’s largesse to Sydney is born from an urge to replant seeds of creativity, expression and boundlessness Cecilia once sowed as a successful architect before Adrian took it from her … or before she let it happen. 

Whannell lets Cecilia ponder that moment at which things tipped over into lethality and left her wondering just how transparent she might be. In a toxic relationship, it’s sometimes not as much about all the trouble someone has seen as the shame they feel for not getting out ahead of it. It’s presented here not as a judgmental crutch but a mere matter of fact — one that has had a domino effect into the lives of everyone Cecilia knows before Adrian plots his next attack on her.

Because Adrian is, of course, not dead — having achieved invisibility and intervened in Cecilia’s life. It starts with an inexplicable kitchen fire, continues with some portfolio materials that disappear before Cecilia’s job interview (with another dipshit wannabe master of the universe, mind you), endows a customary sheet-pulling sequence with a distressingly virulent voyeurism, and jumps to a place where Cecilia is suspected of drug abuse and physical violence. On that last point, Whannell finds a way to put the language of the abuser in Cecilia’s mouth even as we know she didn’t do it. It’s another reminder of the true depth of Adrian’s hold on Cecilia.

It’s also just the tip of the spear with which he prods her in his newfound state, and Whannell doesn’t belabor the timeline. Things get catastrophic very quickly, and that relentlessness robs you of the usual relief to laugh nervously, or at least as much as you might during a less thoughtful take. Again, The Invisible Man will not be an easy watch for anyone who has endured abuse of any stripe or shape — or known someone who has. But it’s grounded by an insistence on emotional authenticity, character detail and respect for how shock, stress and suffering crash over people in waves that wane but never fully withdraw.

Casting Moss also helps, as few actresses could more effectively swing the pendulum between reclamation and relapse. We can barely begin to fathom the collateral damage Cecilia’s time with Adrian has created — untold, generally unspoken, whispered into the night alone if at all. At the same time, Moss has officially exhausted her bag of tricks for such spiraled-out characters such this and those in The Handmaid’s Tale, Her Smell and The Kitchen. This isn’t advocating that Moss return to the all-time-low mindlessness of, say, Get Him to the Greek, but perhaps the next gig doesn’t have to steal her sunshine so much. (Yeah, yeah, Us put Moss on the beach, but then it put scissors in her head.) 

Still, The Invisible Man thrives on Moss’s mixture of humane nuance (when Cecilia steals a car from a man on a cellphone, she assures the caller that the driver’s OK) and believable ferocity in her eventual retaliation against Adrian. Whannell ramps up his second act with bonkers elan, deploying 2020’s first oh-shit moment and a frighteningly fluid scene of havoc that evokes the finest action beats of Upgrade. Not every story beat locks into place or achieves full resolution, but Whannell ratchets the tension right into an unexpectedly noirish conclusion — both a moment of reverence for James Whale’s 1933 original and a resolution that’s staunchly in a societal here and now. 

Neither as misanthropic or maniacal in its body count as Whale’s film, Whannell’s work nevertheless finds a happy medium between entropy and empathy. It feels like the right ground to claim for a shrewd, sleek and truly scary story that knows trauma can’t be erased but it can be empowering.



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An award-winning film critic and features reporter, Nick has professionally written or gabbed about movies for Illinois newspapers, national syndicates, Playboy, The Art Immortal, The Film Yap and Midwest radio stations. He once drummed in a Billy Joel cover band known as Silly Joel and freely presents his Letterboxd page to engage and mock if you wish: https://letterboxd.com/ragekage79/


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