Ever since I saw this new version of The Invisible Man, I keep erroneously referring to it as The Invisible Woman, but the mistake is understandable. Aside from the film’s lead being a woman—Elisabeth Moss as San Francisco architect Cecilia Kass—her dilemma includes the fact that people don’t believe her or even want to listen to the possibility that she is being stalked by her supposedly dead boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who happens to be invisible while he’s tormenting her. She’s effectively not being heard, and it only adds to the trauma and pain of an abusive relationship, one that she escapes in the film’s opening sequence like an inmate escaping prison.
Two weeks after she leaves him and finds a place where he can’t find her, Adrian allegedly commits suicide, and even sends his wormy attorney brother Tom (Michael Dorman) to inform Cecilia that he’s left her $5 million that she can keep collecting as long as she doesn’t commit any major crimes and is evaluated as sane. Cecilia receives help from her attorney sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), and her police officer friend, James (Aldis Hodge), who lives with his teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid), and by spending time with these three people, Cecilia begins to feel human and less scared once again.
Since it’s in all the trailers, I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that Cecilia is tormented by an invisible person who ends up framing her for small offenses (writing a nasty email to her sister) to much larger ones (hitting Sydney) to outright crimes that might void the conditions of her sizable inheritance. But the most important piece of this new form of stalking is that Cecilia is utterly alone in her belief that not only is Adrian not dead, but that he has created the means to make himself invisible. Did I mention he’s an extremely rich “optics innovator,” so the idea that he could actually invent something like an invisibility suit isn’t that outrageous in the context of this story?
Writer/director Leigh Whannell (the screenwriter of the Saw movies and the Insidious franchise, as well as the filmmaker behind the exceedingly entertaining Upgrade) paces The Invisible Man so perfectly and earns every punctuated scare that he’s beginning to reveal himself as one of the true modern masters of horror. There are moments when Cecilia is talking to what appears to be an empty room, believing that Adrian is in there somewhere, and Whannell frames the reaction shot of an empty space in the room as if there’s somebody there to the point where we start to imagine we see someone in that negative area.
At this point, Moss has become the queen of tormented souls—from “The Handmaid’s Tale” and last year’s Her Smell to the upcoming Shirley—and she delivers such a strong and convincing performance in The Invisible Man that you can’t help but be impressed. There’s a part of Cecilia that is completely aware that her claims sound insane, but she’s become so desperate and paranoid over her time with Adrian that she’s convinced herself that maybe he’s just gotten in her head and made her believe things aren’t there that her eyes tell her are. Moss also gets the opportunity to kick major ass in this movie, overcoming her fears and fighting back in a way that resembles an unleashing of every ounce of anger she’s suppressed for however long she’s been with Adrian.
The scares are made all the more chilling thanks to a score by Benjamin Wallfisch and a neutral-yet-perfect-for-scares production design by Alex Holmes. The layout of Adrian’s home/lab/fortress is particularly impressive.
I’m not convinced that the message of The Invisible Man is “believe women,” although there are certainly themes in that vein that seem to say listen to women before you declare them hysterical or crazy, in addition to lessons about gaslighting. Whatever your interpretation of the deeper meanings behind this film, it’s a powerful and provocative work that has one of the most powerful endings of any film I’m likely to see in 2020, and one that illustrates the true price of pushing someone too far. This is the first great horror film of the year, but more importantly, it’s a scary movie that is smart, surprising at times, and tapped into the world that exists around it.
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