“Adrian will haunt you if you let him.”
It doesn’t take much to destroy someone’s psyche. Mess with their sleep, swipe their work, send some e-mails on their behalf. Alone, these concepts are fairly benign potshots at a person’s mental well-being. As tiny displays of domination mount over time, they create a monstrous specter that haunts all day, every day. Add to it the isolation that comes with skepticism from those who are supposed to help, and it can break any person into a shell of their former self.
The third feature film from the mind (along with James Wan) that brought forth Saw and Insidious, The Invisible Man is writer-director Leigh Whannell’s big swing at the iconic Universal Monster Joint. Instead of following the well-worn path of the scientist gone mad, the story instead turns its watchful gaze towards Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), the ex-girlfriend of optics wunderkind Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Following a harrowing escape from captivity, Cecilia learns that her abusive former lover committed suicide and left her a tidy sum in his will — provided she doesn’t commit any crimes or anything of that sort. All seems well until a series of increasingly alarming incidents happen to Cecilia. Quickly, she concludes that Adrian isn’t gone after all. In fact, he may be closer than anybody could imagine.
Past iterations of The Invisible Man, including the beloved Universal original, place great stock in dazzling effects to show a man who does the impossible and vanishes like a ghost. And while the optics suit that Adrian dons in the 2020 update is a Tinseltown version of technology that currently exists, it’s believable. The most important decision that Whannell made in this whole operation was to worry less about flashy VFX and more about evolving the old H.G. Wells novel into something relevant and engaging. He made the right choice; by locating the story’s primary drama in a woman horrifyingly affected by the “tortured genius” archetype and leaning into said archetype to explore the most destructive elements of toxic masculinity, Whannell breathes new life into the old tale. Just as audiences collectively held their breath when a law enforcement car showed up in the Blumhouse banger Get Out, theatergoers are filled with pre-emptive dread watching a woman victim attempting to get someone, anyone, to simply believe her. We know how things are, whether we admit it aloud or not.
Whannell’s trust in his own storytelling and his lead actress’ ability to speak volumes without saying a word pays off in the opening sequence. Instead of an exploitative flashback detailing graphic domestic abuse, The Invisible Man begins with the couple sleeping. Cecilia awakens, and — taking the greatest pains to not make a sound — removes her partner’s grip from her waist and sneaks out of bed. Her breath shuddering, she tiptoes to a closet where she has a gym bag hidden, filled with everything she needs to flee. A toss or a turn from Adrian causes Cecilia to freeze. A single noise could be disastrous. Cecilia turns the security camera onto Adrian and keeps a watchful eye through her phone as she makes her escape. Through disciplined sound design, patient camerawork and a powerful muted performance, both the raised stakes and the dynamics of the relationship are on full display within the first 10 minutes of The Invisible Man.
It feels slightly sadistic to clamor for Moss in roles such as these (her characters have been through the wringer in past works like The Handmaid’s Tale and Her Smell), but her skill in the art of growth-by-trauma is unmatched. For those who worry that Moss oscillates from terror to despair and back again (which itself is a daunting task to complete believably, speaking as someone who watches horror films for a living), she delivers a fair amount of deadpan humor, even in dread-filled moments. Tonally, it’s balanced; Whannell retains some of the ironic laughs of James Whale’s 1933 adaptation, while turning the possessive hubris of David Cronenberg’s The Fly up to 11.
Supportive roles could be argued as underwritten, but it wouldn’t hold much water. Jackson-Cohen, though largely invisible throughout, is quietly (and sometimes violently) threatening enough to maintain an air of menace when he can’t be seen — which is the whole point and provides the narrative pressure. James and Syndey Lanier are given one solid scene to establish their tight familial bond, but that’s all they need, due to rich dialogue and natural chemistry from Aldis Hodge and Storm Reid. It takes mere moments to make the audience care for them as they would the Freelings of Poltergeist or the Warrens of The Conjuring. The gold star for support work goes to Michael Dorman as Adrian’s brother Tom, who shape-shifts between sleazy and sympathetic until he goes full-bore into one of the former traits.
Whannell’s prowess with a camera cannot be overstated. Off-center framing and a deft utilization of negative space encourages the viewer to search the peripheral of every frame for a sign of something uncanny. In effect, for most of The Invisible Man, the viewer may likely feel as paranoid as Cecilia (sometimes more so). The Upgrade director’s lens peers around corners, panning back and forth like a hawk-eyed head on a swivel, sometimes crawling along at floor-level to observe Cecilia as sneakily as possible. Building tension with a near-empty frame and a small handful of locations is no easy task, but Whannell succeeds and walks that tightrope for two straight hours.
My initial reaction to The Invisible Man’s third act was that it was too abrupt with little buildup, thus undermining the emotional payoff that was supposed to accompany its climax. But after chewing further on the pacing and rhythm, it’s clear that Whannell is nothing if not consistent. Several of the moments that got the biggest audience reaction in my screening were ones that seemingly came out of nowhere in a relatively low-tension scene. Without spoiling what happens, it’s safe to say that this peak moment still delivers a catharsis of sorts and stays true to the characters involved. The last minute or so of the movie contains one of the most satisfying final shots to come from a Blumhouse offering.
The Invisible Man relies less on the spectacle of optical effects and more on a compelling story. It doesn’t go the hard sci-fi route of warning against technological advances, opting instead to monstrously underline that the predator’s greatest weapon in his toolkit is unchecked power. Power can lie in brute strength, sure enough, but also lies in the disbelief of every skeptical face a victim meets as she volleys a long-shot towards justice. Whannell’s The Invisible Man is an absolute banger, and stands tall as the most spectacular evolution of the story to hit the big screen.
Anya Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a horror-centric columnist and film critic. Her work can be seen in Fangoria Magazine, Rue Morgue, Dread Central and Birth.Movies.Death as well as her website anyawrites.com.