The Invisible Man is a low-budget thriller that upends the classic Universal monster movie by actually making the Invisible Man a true monster. Capitalizing on the #MeToo movement, Blumhouse Studios has made a remarkable horror movie that, while effective, feels empty somehow. Though I’m not entirely sure where the filmmakers went wrong.
The idea itself is clever and timely. Though I think with or without the MeToo movement, the movie would still be relevant if only because, for the most part, it is from the point of view of its heroine, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss). Writer and director Leigh Whannell takes the psychological horror of domestic abuse and attempts to make it a visceral experience.
To say this film and this review comes with a trigger warning is an understatement. Whannell never shows us Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), her abusive lover, actually hitting her-in the beginning, or spending much time with them at all as a couple. However, he does show us the emotional and psychological scars. Which for some survivors might be worse; not to mention Adrian does hit Cecilia later on after she’s left him.
We meet Cecilia as the film opens as she quickly and painstakingly executes her escape. She drugs Adrian with Diazepam and quickly flees into the woods surrounding his cliffside palatial estate. On an old country road, she meets her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) and flees into the night free of Adrian. Whannell effortlessly tells us all we need to know about Cecilia within a very short span of time.
Each step reveals to us either her frail psychological state, the stout emotional fortitude of a survivor, or her ability to plan ahead while also thinking on her feet. The opening scene is terse and top-notch exposition and character building while also doubling as just stellar bare-bones tense narrative storytelling.
The Invisible Man is Whannell’s best film to date hands down. It has more empathy than any of his other works. He has taken a story told many times before, with a few of those times being similar to Whannell’s version, but switches it to the woman’s point of view. By making The Invisible Man the actual monster and a metaphor for gaslighting he has made a technically brilliant horror film.
The film is not entirely from Cecilia’s point of view. From time to time Whannell and Stefan Duscio’s camera slide to the left or right to a dark empty hallway or raises up to peer over Cecilia’s shoulder as if to hint that Adrian might be there, hiding in the dark. But what Duscio is actually doing is making us feel what a survivor feels after they escape, like their abuser is hiding in the shadows, just waiting for when no one is looking.
Later, Cecilia is told this by Adrian’s brother Tom (Michael Dorman), also his lawyer and estate executor, Adrian has committed suicide. He has left her five million dollars to be paid out over a span of five years. Those who have seen Knives Out or any murder mystery before will know about the clause in every will that stipulates “unless found guilty of a crime or proven to be mentally incompetent.”
To Whannell’s credit, he takes his time to reveal the Invisible Man. Cecilia doesn’t begin to see and feel Adrian’s presence immediately. After escaping Adrian’s homestays with an old friend and cop James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). James helps her step by step reclaim her own independence and helps overcome her fears while supporting her.
I liked the idea of making James a cop rather than a therapist if only because that would have been too neat. Making James a cop allows for some conflict in that he has patience and some experience with domestic abuse but not in how to handle the aftermath.
Granted I love any excuse to use Aldis Hodge for any reason. It is always a pleasure to see him come onscreen with his easy charm and wide-open smile. He has an ability to either be instantly charming or instantly terrifying. Here, obviously, he is charming and comforting.
I liked, heck even loved, so many individual things about The Invisible Man, it is a mystery to me why I don’t love the sum of its parts. It is certainly not because of Moss who gives an intense and deeply felt performance of, not just a woman on the verge of a breakdown but a woman in the midst of a breakdown as well. She has the toughest role in the movie.
Men love strong women as long as they exude male personality traits. Moss’s Cecilia is absolutely a strong woman, but she spends so much of the film being vulnerable that she seems as if she might break. Some men, and sadly some women, may see this as a weakness as opposed to what it really is. A woman admitting she is scared and needs love and help, which for a survivor of abuse, is the hardest thing of all to admit. Whatever issues I may have with the film, Moss or Cecilia is not one of them.
Whannell allows us to see Cecilia build herself back up after her escape. Early on we see her take a few steps outside to the mailbox before a jogger passes by, and she runs back to the safety of James’ house. She apologizes, but James says she doesn’t need to. “You left the house for the first time since you got here. If you ask me that’s a success.”
The Invisible Man structures its narrative in such a way that it never utters the words “gaslighting”. It instead frames every scene in such a way that you can’t understand why people don’t believe Cecilia when Adrian starts to destroy her life all over again. Whannell and Moss effortlessly position us squarely on Cecilia’s side in all matters so we understand without question why she does what she does.
Perhaps it is the twists and turns of the last half of the film that bothered me. Whannell does a great job making everything work, but not enough to where I followed him on every reveal. At one point, Emily receives an email from Cecilia, telling her she feels suffocated and that she hopes she dies. Obviously, this is Adrian trying to isolate Celcia all over again. But I had trouble buying that Emily would so easily fall for such a hackneyed trick such as an email from a clearly troubled sister. Emily’s behavior didn’t seem like the behavior of a sister, more like what a man would think sisters would behave like.
All movies require suspension of disbelief, horror and monster movies, most of all. The reveal of Adrian’s suit had me rolling my eyes, if only because it felt like Whannell was trying to persuade us that Cecilia wasn’t crazy. But we already knew that.
In a film called The Invisible Man, where the main character is a genius in the field of optical tech, we would assume he’d use a suit of some sort. Especially since Whannel and Duscio do such a great job of showing us Adrian’s house in the beginning that they foreshadow the discovery brilliantly.
But by showing us the suit, a black bodysuit covered with cameras, I couldn’t help but wonder how Adrian could walk on hardwood floors, of which every house in the movie has, without making a racket. A silly and nitpicky thought, I admit. But my point isn’t that I’m a pedantic ass or that the film is bad-but to simply say I was with the movie but not enough to where a stupid thing like that didn’t bother me.
It doesn’t help that The Invisible Man is saturated in the male gaze. The male gaze is often used when talking about how a woman’s sexuality is framed or presented. But it also has to do with the narrative framing and structure as well. The Invisible Man is written, directed, shot, edited, and scored by men.
Whannell gave Moss his script and asked her to fix what she thought felt misrepresented. Moss has even said she felt Whannell was refreshingly open to criticism. But Whannell’s name is still the only name listed, which suggests Moss didn’t change that much. But with only Moss and one woman producer, Kylie Du Fresne, as the only women in any kind of creative control, I would argue the male gaze isn’t subverted so much as warped slightly. The result is that something feels off.
The Invisible Man is not the first movie to deal with the societal trauma of being a woman told almost exclusively from the male point of view. Again, it doesn’t sink The Invisible Man, though I can’t help wondering why not have a woman at the very least write the script? Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale explore trauma in much the same way, though they do so in a way that is meant to be unsettling.
Perhaps that’s the problem. The Invisible Man, while effective and never really meaning to, comes off at times as more exploitative than explorative.
Duscio’s camera never objectifies Moss, to be clear. For such a low-budget movie, Duscio and Whannell find a plethora of interesting ways to frame an empty room that sends chills down our spine. It is not showy work but simple and effective. One scene involving Cecilia exploring James’ attic is especially chilling because of Duscio’s camera work and Whannell’s pacing.
Benjamin Wallfisch’s score helps but also hurts. It works for the majority of the time, but it yanked me out of the movie a few times. Perhaps I’m overthinking it, and it really just boils down to the music. For the most part, Wallfisch’s score works and helps build the tension. But at certain points, especially during a few of the jump scares, which for the most part had me scaling up my seat, reminded me of Annihilation. A sort of reverberating bass that dragged me out of the moment and made it difficult for me to settle back into the movie.
Combined with the rare times in which Whannell’s script has his characters making stupid decisions, there are just enough wrong steps to keep me at arm’s length. In itself, this is odd, considering how much I usually love flawed films. I’m not a fool. I understand that horror movies live and die by characters making stupid decisions; it is, in fact, the lifeblood of the genre.
I’m sorry if I don’t seem to be making sense. Sometimes, a movie can work but still not land, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. Perhaps the male gaze isn’t the problem so much as the Sherman gaze. I don’t know; I only know Whannell has nothing to be ashamed of as The Invisible Man is a daring attempt nonetheless, failures be damned. It is one of those films that I admire more than I like, but I wish I liked it as much as I admired it.