Another stellar performance from Elisabeth Moss grounds this outlandish horror based on the HG Wells novel
Dir/scr: Leigh Whannell. US. 2020. 125mins
An architect’s abusive boyfriend won’t let her go — even after he’s dead — in The Invisible Man, a reimagining of the iconic Universal monster that leans heavily on Elisabeth Moss’ feverish, grounded performance. Suspenseful but increasingly farfetched, writer-director Leigh Whannell’s horror-thriller seeks to speak to the trauma many women feel in toxic relationships — not to mention the anguish they endure when others don’t believe them. But The Invisible Man ends up exploiting rather than exploring its timely theme, resulting in a skilful exercise that’s too invested in its twists and turns.
The movie’s best asset is Moss, who elevates the material with her commitment
Arriving February 28 in the UK and US, this Universal release will benefit from horror fans’ familiarity with Whannell, a co-creator of the Saw and Insidious series. (On top of that, horror powerhouse Blumhouse is producing.) Moss’ star power should help as well, and with Brahms: The Boy II and Fantasy Island underperforming, there seems to be little direct genre competition. Expect this modestly budgeted picture to enjoy sizeable profits.
As The Invisible Man begins, Cecilia (Moss) desperately escapes from the home of her rich inventor boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in the middle of the night. Grateful to be free of his controlling, violent ways, she hides out in her cop friend James’ (Aldis Hodge) house, frightened Adrian will track her down. That’s when she learns that Adrian has killed himself — but rather than feeling relieved, she becomes convinced that he’s still alive and stalking her using an invisibility technology he developed.
Drawing inspiration from the H.G. Wells novel, which was memorably turned into the 1933 film with Claude Rains, Whannell (who wrote and directed 2018’s Upgrade) has crafted a crowd-pleasing horror movie with plenty of chills and scares as Cecilia comes to realise that the man who tormented her hasn’t gone away. Clearly, Adrian is meant to be a stand-in for all abusive partners who torture their loved ones, leaving them permanently scarred from the experience. But unlike most survivors, Cecilia now must contend with the fact that Adrian (who everyone assumes is dead) can escape detection, making her life miserable by undermining her credibility until everyone around her believes that she’s crazy.
The film’s sci-fi conceit wouldn’t have nearly as much impact without Moss, who works in the same vein as she does on The Handmaid’s Tale in presenting a character at her breaking point who nonetheless remains resilient. The Invisible Man doesn’t ask us to wondere whether Cecilia is simply paranoid — unquestionably, some sort of invisible presence is preying on her — yet the Emmy-winning actress illustrates how this abuse survivor starts to unravel once the menace grows stronger and those around her stop taking her fears seriously. Whannell is so invested in unloading juicy surprises that this initially realistic story becomes increasingly preposterous, but Moss keeps the film anchored in plausibility; although sometimes just barely.
As much as The Invisible Man seems to be a commentary on domestic violence, though, Whannell forgoes that once the plot requires Adrian not just be an abuser but also a super-genius with an impeccable sense of dramatic timing and, apparently, unlimited strength and agility. In its opening reels, the movie has a grim resonance as the mysterious presence descends on Cecilia. But soon that presence — presumably Adrian — begins acting like a frustratingly cartoon-y bogeyman. Although The Invisible Man has its share of deft suspense sequences, the movie settles into a conventional, effects-laden thriller in which Cecilia has to clear her name and get to the bottom of what’s going on.
Despite being barely on screen, Jackson-Cohen is appropriately despicable, while Hodge does his best playing a bland good guy who is not sure if Cecilia is losing her mind. The Invisible Man recycles plenty of silly horror tropes — just because a door opens slowly on its own doesn’t mean you should walk through it — but Benjamin Wallfisch’s score does a nice job paying homage to Bernard Herrmann, whose music gave Alfred Hitchcock’s films their tense pulse. Still, the film’s best asset is Moss, who elevates the material with her commitment to Cecilia. Almost everyone in The Invisible Man underestimates this battered architect — including Whannell — but Moss sees her for the wary warrior she’ll become.
Production companies: BH, Goalpost
Worldwide distribution: Universal Pictures
Producers: Jason Blum, Kylie du Fresne
Production design: Alex Holmes
Editing: Andy Canny
Cinematography: Stefan Duscio
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
Main cast: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Oliver Jackson-Cohen