[Review] 'The Invisible Man': Fear Grounded in Reality
Though we are in the age of reboots, it's a big challenge to tell a story originally published in 1897 for a 2020 audience. The Invisible Man - despite some unnecessary twists and turns - is a nerve-wracking tale where most of the fear is a reflection of the reality of domestic violence.
After the critical and commercial flop that was 2017's The Mummy, Universal scrapped their idea for a "Dark Universe," which would have included many of their classic monsters. Instead, they let director Leigh Whannell (Upgrade, Saw) have free reign to tell an individualized story; that he did. The film follows a victim of domestic abuse, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), whose abusive ex commits suicide and leaves her some of his possessions. When Cecilia starts experiencing strange phenomena, she starts to suspect her ex really might not be dead after all.
The true horror of The Invisible Man is not in the science-fiction that comes with it. More anxiety-inducing than any other scene in the film is the cold open, where Cecilia attempts to escape from her boyfriend Adrian's (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) hyper-secure home. We don't have to see a gratuitously violent abuse scene to know why she has to have such a complex escape plan. The effects of her trauma are evident for the rest of the film. When she starts living with her friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter (Storm Reid), she isn't able to even go outside and get the mail for fear that Adrian might be waiting. It brings a much-needed grounding for a story that is based on an unimaginable concept.
In a movie where the villain is invisible, jump scares are to be expected. But Whannell doesn't overuse them the way some generic horror films, like this year's The Turning, have done. The first few sequences where Cecilia discovers Adrian's presence take their time to build. The score is either very minimal or not present. There are moments where Whannell cuts to the doorway Cecilia is looking at and it is completely empty. We aren't looking at a monster, but you know one is there.
Moss's performance is one of the major reasons why this movie is as successful as it is. As a trauma victim, the desperation for someone to believe what she is experiencing is real, is palpable. While her claims do eventually lead to her becoming unhinged and being placed in a mental institution, Moss herself is never the caricature one might expect. The script handles her character well, which can't be said about the others. James and daughter Sydney bring good energy, but it isn't clear who they are to Cecilia until you google it. Her sister, Alice, is constantly an asshole to everyone for no apparent reason.
Unfortunately, the film pivots in the second half. Once we get to the mental institution, things get more conventional. The violence is amped up and feels more like a twisted MCU movie than the unique horror movie promised in the opening scene. In a scene that should be the climax, there is another twist that doesn't really do anything; it only forces the movie to go on for another 20 minutes. Perhaps Whannell's intent was to make a comment on how abuse victims are treated in reality, but that message was muddled in the action.
The film has some issues, but certainly not enough to undermine its strengths. With Whannell and Moss front and center, a famous story is used to shine a light on real issues of abuse and the long-lasting effects that come with it. The Invisible Man is more than meets the eye.