Online reactions to Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man quickly drew parallels to the modern horror of predatory sexual assault. The film has been branded a “#MeToo horror film.” And those echoes certainly are present within the narrative. Much of the film’s tension stems from the desperation of a beleaguered woman when no one will listen to her fears or take her distress seriously. She’s assigned many maladies to explain away her torment – regarded as grief-stricken, agoraphobic, vindictive, and of course just plain “crazy.” There’s an inevitable association with women trapped in menacing relationships, but for me, the parallels with victims of harassment are surface-level at best.
After the popular and critical successes of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, it feels as if every horror film coming at us must now sport an accompanying social message. It’s not a new trope, but it feels more immediate today than ever before. I’m not saying The Invisible Man doesn’t have these echoes. What I am saying, though, is that it’s not the reason to see the film. There’s no shame in it just being a fun and engaging thriller with slight thematic echoes.
I find that The Invisible Man works best as a high-tech throwback to the female-driven Hitchcockian thrillers of the 1990s like Julia Roberts’ Sleeping With the Enemy. It’s a strong late February offering from Blumhouse Productions that doesn’t need to reach for the thematic brilliance of a Get Out or Us. It emerges on its own as a slick and well-directed thriller drawn with a powerful female center.
The Invisible Man stars Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale, Her Smell) in one of her best performances as Cecelia Kass, wife of brilliant scientist Adrian Griffin. We first seen her following through with an elaborate plan to escape this abusive husband. For a while, it appears to have worked. When she receives the news that Griffin died of an apparent suicide, she finally breathes a well-deserved sigh of relief. Unfortunately, her now-invisible and definitely-not-dead husband also breathes a sigh of relief. Standing just behind her.
Previously best known as the writer of modern horror classics like Saw and Insidious, director Leigh Whannell delivers a particularly taut and well-executed first half. He sets several key scenes in a small suburban home, managing to film the interiors in a particularly cavernous fashion. His wide-screen compositions create an ironically expansive space out of a modest guest room or a standard tract-home kitchen. By panning slowly across a room, he effectively establishes that these spaces may provide ample hiding places for an unseen man. The terror could be anywhere – there’s no escaping the male gaze. I wish this tension were similarly maintained across the entire body of the film, which eventually devolves into standard thriller tropes. But for a good while, he creates a beautifully suspenseful terror.
Whannell is, of course, paired with one of the best actresses working today. Elisabeth Moss is well known for completely immersing herself both physically and mentally into roles, and her turn as Cecelia Kass rockets to the top of her enviable body of work. She creates a perfectly calibrated performance that offers a very deliberately public deterioration of this woman’s psyche. But, as with great female performances in the thriller genre, her vulnerable demeanor masks a brutally efficient inner strength. What I like most about her performance and what differs from something like Julia Roberts in Sleeping With the Enemy is that Moss’s Cecelia isn’t a hapless victim. She plots and strategizes against her opponent, engaging in a psychological chess game throughout the landscape of the film. Yes, Moss conveys Cecelia’s seemingly outward mental breakdown, but she smartly simultaneously maintains a brutal inner strength.
By the end of The Invisible Man, Moss emerges in a well-choreographed final sequence as a modern take on the classic Hitchcock blonde. She’s done a bad, bad thing, but she’s done it in heels.