Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man deserved better than it got
Catching up: Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, I can’t help feeling, was robbed of its shot at becoming a word-of-mouth blockbuster thriller that makes audiences scream happily. (As it is, the film, whose release was stunted by COVID-19 and the closure of movie theaters, still managed to scare up a decent amount via streaming and at drive-ins.) The Invisible Man is tethered to its strong lead performance — it’s probably unthinkable without Elisabeth Moss — and it’s a bit mechanical in the way that thrillers great or small can be. But I would be dishonest if I said it didn’t make me flinch and gasp. No doubt about it: the movie works. And it works on a nasty personal level; it exploits our awareness that women are gaslighted by abusive men all the time, to perpetuate and add to the abuse.
Moss is Cecilia, stuck in a suffocating relationship with wealthy scientist Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She plots her escape, spirited away by her sister (Harriet Dyer) and delivered to the safe home of her childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge), also a cop. The distraught Adrian kills himself, or so he wants the world to think. In reality, he’s using his beefed-up invisibility suit — he’s some sort of optics genius — to stalk Cecilia and ruin her life bit by bit. Nobody, of course, will believe Cecilia — not her sister, not James or his college-bound daughter, whose tuition Cecilia is paying for out of the money Adrian willed to her. We recognize fairly quickly that Adrian is contriving to alienate Cecilia from everyone else so that he can control her, in ways obvious and not so obvious.
Made for relative couch change ($7 million), The Invisible Man doesn’t indulge in an abundance of special effects, like Hollow Man or even Memoirs of an Invisible Man. There’s a scene where Elisabeth Moss is held aloft by her invisible attacker that might’ve been better conceived, and her subsequent being tossed around the room is needlessly crude; what was needed, I think, was a way to take us intimately inside her experience, to be worthy of the quieter, more dread-ridden moments. That writer-director Whannell actually has some integrity to betray, by way of the more flamboyant clashes, speaks well of the rest of the movie: it earns its Big Moments but doesn’t really need them. Most of the terror here works on dark, elemental levels — someone is after me but nobody will help me. Some of the emotional work, with Moss’s performance gaining power as Cecilia becomes more frightened and frustrated, is first-rate and lifts the thrills considerably.
Some of this description, of course, may read a bit stiffly because I’m trying to write around the twists. I can say that The Invisible Man has its technical ducks in a row, with Stefan Duscio’s sleek photography consorting well with Benjamin Wallfisch’s richly ominous score (though I wish Wallfisch hadn’t leaned so much on the deep rattling honking he used on Blade Runner 2049 — at times it reminded me of the punitively ghastly score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the repugnant Gone Girl). This is the sort of suavely composed thriller that would’ve been not only a big hit but a water-cooler topic in a better time. The premise may be techno-pulp, but most of the movie stays with Cecilia’s choking feelings of helplessness. You may wonder what she could possibly do against her torturer.
In its last act, The Invisible Man almost lost me. It gets too plotty, introducing elements that seem to add little but padding, not to mention impatience on our part. The nobody-will-believe-me theme gets a vigorous workout, but all it leads to is gunfire and a shit-ton of “wait a minute” incidents. How convenient, for instance, that someone who has been careful to isolate and delegitimize Cecilia should leave so many people around to support her side of the story. The climax is enjoyable in an empty, guilty way, like a candy bar. But Elisabeth Moss shepherds us through it all; she stays connected to the basic nightmare of a woman with a bad ex-boyfriend in a perfect position to make her life hell. Cecilia’s ultimate act is, as written, something of a betrayal of her character, but the way Moss plays it — as the only act left to Cecilia — it isn’t. The Invisible Man is a reminder of how high a conventional thriller can be lifted with the right star, whose performance, like Betty Gilpin’s in The Hunt, deserves better than cruel fate allowed.