What you can’t see can hurt you.
An invisible threat haunts Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) at the beginning of The Invisible Man – and despite what you might expect, it isn’t the film’s titular villain. Instead, the invisible threat that looms over Kass is the same one that has followed Kelly McGillis, Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, Kesha, Taylor Swift, E. Jean Carroll, Christine Blasey Ford, and several other women: abuse.
We see how it’s affected Kass early on in the film; how she fears sleeping next to her boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and how she quietly and meticulously creeps around the house so as not to wake him. She’s lucky enough to escape from her abusive relationship and stay at her friend James’ (Aldis Hodge) place as she recovers and picks up the broken pieces of her shattered life. Then one day she receives news that brings her a sigh of relief: Adrian killed himself shortly after Kass left him.
At least, that’s what Kass is told at first. But then she starts noticing strange things around the house. She finds an old pill bottle in her bathroom that she left behind at Adrian’s place when she left. Her belongings keep getting shifted around, moved from one place to another, and sometimes disappearing altogether. And despite being told over and over again that Adrian is dead, Kass can’t help but feel that he’s still around, always watching her close by.
I didn’t have high hopes for The Invisible Man prior to seeing this movie. Why would I? For one thing, it’s a remake of the 1940s Invisible Man movies by Universal, and horror remakes go over just about as well as Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho. It’s a February release, and spring movies tend to be among the worst films released on any given year. And to top it all off, The Invisible Man was originally planned to be an inclusion in Universal’s Dark Universe franchise – and if you want to know how bad of a start that franchise got off to, go watch Tom Cruise’s Mummy remake.
So I had no expectations of this movie being any good, let alone even remotely entertaining. Yet The Invisible Man blew away all of my expectations, immersing me in a harrowing, haunting, and nerve-wracking experience that doesn’t fail to send chills down your spine or stick the hairs up on your neck.
One of the many ways that this film succeeds in doing that is in its clever and carefully-crafted cinematography, which evokes a sense of dread and angst throughout the whole picture. Director Leigh Whannell and longtime collaborator Stefan Duscio smartly frame each shot slightly off-center, leaving plenty of white space between its characters and their environments. If this were any other film, you might think the shot was simply framed sloppily and the crew was just too lazy to readjust it. Instead the framing is used for artistic effect, creating the uneasy presence of another character despite never being able to see him. You feel like somebody is always watching Kass, and therefore, somebody is always watching you.
Elizabeth Moss is especially convincing in portraying a traumatized survivor still haunted by her seemingly dead boyfriend. We already knew that she was a skilled and talented actress in television shows like “Mad Men” and “The Handmaiden’s Tale,” but here she demonstrates another layer of expression that feels especially raw and vulnerable. If you removed Elizabeth Moss completely from this movie and put her into another movie where its protagonist was dealing with PTSD from an abusive relationship, it would still work very well. That’s because she isn’t portraying a stock final girl archetype you usually find in many of these horror movies: she’s playing a fleshed out and fully-realized character dealing with her own unique problems and isolation. That depth and complexion adds a lot of emotional weight to this seemingly simple horror movie, establishing a strong connection to its main character and making us root for her throughout the picture.
All of this contributes to Leigh Whannell’s exemplary ability to elevate this picture beyond its original expectations. While the movie is all sorts of exciting and riveting on its own, Whannell uses the thrills and jump scares to tell a deeper narrative about the mistreatment of women and how we respond to them speaking their truth. We’ve seen this in a few other movies now where they use their blockbuster appeal to share something deeper and more compelling, such as the topic of racism in Get Out, mental health and well-being in Joker, wealth inequality in Parasite, and artificial intelligence in Leigh Whannell’s own Upgrade. Here, Whannell is utilizing a classic premise to pioneer a powerful pro-feminist anthem, not unlike other blockbusters such as Alien or Mad Max: Fury Road.
Of course, the movie is not without its flaws. The first act specifically uses a lot of time for setup and drags in terms of pacing. With this being a horror movie, you’re bound to get at least one or two groan-inducing moments where characters seem to be begging to get killed through one stupid mistake or another. And there’s one scene in particular where the invisible man is slaughtering a whole hallway full of guards, all while the security cameras capture the whole scene. You’d think people would see that footage and believe Kass’ outlandish claims, yet the moment is dropped as quickly as it is brought up and is never revisited again.
None of this changes how ingenious and unsettling The Invisible Man is in its eerie premise: how brilliant it is in guiding its audience through one jaw-dropping scare after another and how even more brilliant it is in weaving deeper feminist themes into its narrative. I wondered before going into this movie why its planned sequel was titled The Invisible Woman. Now I know why.