Director: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman
Running Time: 124 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Blumhouse's 2020 reimagining of The Invisible Man is built upon a single hook that completely flips the script on H.G. Wells' original 1897 novel. By shifting the focus from the title character to the person most affected, in horrifying ways, by his scientific experiment, writer/director Leigh Whannell makes a film that feels jarringly of our time. You could even argue the events depicted are less an "experiment" than a sadistic trap.
While the origins of the character were far from noble in any incarnation of the material, it's taken to a new level here, with the invisibility wielded not only as weapon for violence, destruction, stalking and psychological warfare, but as a "Me Too" metaphor for the plight of battered and abused women. These implications of this aren't subtle, but compared to whatever probable disaster we would have otherwise gotten from a Universal monster movie reboot, this feels like restrained elegance. And often it is, a lot more interested in exploring victim trauma than science fiction or horror.
Whannell knows he has something and just keeps tightening the screws, cornering a woman no one has any reason to believe because her story seems so irrational, if not downright insane. It becomes more than just a battle against her unseen tormenter, but also the doubters who look down at her with pity when she attempts to explain her ordeal. Sound familiar? It should, but it also marks the first time Wells' story has been adapted to the screen to reflect something more than what it's directly about.
There are times this goes through the motions of a mainstream horror thriller that doesn't exactly break new ground, but Elisabeth Moss' tortured performance is so great you'd think that it does, elevating the material to a level it wouldn't have attained with someone else in the role. Having slowly built up this really impressive post-Mad Men career specializing in darkly damaged characters, she transposes the qualities that made her indie work so compelling to a far more mainstream effort, with nothing compromised in the process. The movie's well-made and suspenseful, but she makes it better, so thoroughly inhabiting the fear and terror of this woman that it makes everything surrounding her feel that much more threatening.
Cecilia Kass (Moss) is trapped in a violent relationship with wealthy, controlling optics engineer Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) when she decides to one night make her escape after drugging him. After barely evading his grasp and leaving with the help of her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), she hides out with San Francisco police detective and childhood friend, James' (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). Traumatized and afraid to even step out the door, Cecilia soon receives the shocking news that Adrian committed suicide and left a substantial fortune for her in his will, according to his lawyer brother, Tom (Michael Dorman).
Besides the inescapably chilly feeling Adrian's presence still seems to be everywhere for Cecilia, something doesn't add up when some seriously strange, unexplainable goings-on in the house point toward the fact that he's still somehow physically present. But the more convinced she becomes that Adrian faked his own death, using his scientific acumen to invisibly threaten her, the crazier and more emotionally fragile those closest to her believe she's become. Now, sight unseen, Adrian's able to frame her as a criminal and destroy her life, making good on his prophecy that she'll never escape him. Controlling her more now than when "alive," Cecilia desperately attempts to get anyone to believe what's happening, before it's too late.
While very much following a modern horror template of a woman being terrorized by an unseen, destructive force, the added narrative layer of partner abuse and Adrian's motivations make the proceedings feel more real, and with higher stakes. Right up until the invisibility angle is fully absorbed into the story, you'd think this was exclusively a film about domestic violence, mostly because it is. And it remains that throughout, with the physical and psychological battering firmly planted front and center, which stands as a credit to Moss' depiction of Cecilia's ongoing battle and Whannell's script, which takes some clever, surprising turns.
It helps that the film rarely overdoes it, refusing to engage in some of the cornier aspects that have previously plagued loose cinematic adaptations of Wells' tale. Most of that has stemmed from the idea's gimmickry, as you can't help but cringe awaiting the same kind of effects-heavy, action nonsense we got in Hollow Man. But there's none of that here, with the technology being revealed in a completely reasonable way as far as these things go, keeping the focus entirely on Cecilia's plight. Rarely do we pause at the incredulity of something this absurd because we're all in from the film's first tension-filled scene and that trust isn't violated from then on.
Moss is so believable in her mental anguish that the idea Cecilia could be losing her mind because of or in addition to what's happening is never completely off the table, both for her and us. From the moment we meet her she's already in dire straits and it only escalates from there, culminating in a mid-point restaurant scene with her sister that takes everything to an entirely different level. In other words, it's on. From there, the action does slip into a slightly more conventional pattern as the details of Adrian's plot come into view, but it's no less exciting because of it.
As a filmmaker, Whannell always been more deeply entrenched in psychological thrills than "torture porn" horror. It's easy to forget after its many underwhelming sequels that 2004's original Saw, which he wrote and co-starred in, wasn't initially concerned severed limbs and deadly traps. It was a twisty morality play with with more psychological suspense than gore, its successive films entirely missing the point and extracting all the wrong elements from its initially ingenious concept, bastardizing a franchise that was never intended as one. He accomplished similar feat with Insidious and, more recently, Upgrade, marking him as a creative force worth watching.
This could have easily flown off the rails in the last act, but Whannell and Moss steer it steadily to a finish that doesn't feel ridiculously over-the-top or too clever for its own good. It does require her to go into action hero mode a bit, but even that's well-handled without threatening the film's core conceit. Clocking in at a really tight 124 minutes that just flies by, The Invisible Man's peak comes as Cecilia's flailing for survival, attempting to convince everyone around her of the impossible as the walls keep closing in. Moss frighteningly reflects what could register as an eerily familiar situation to many women watching. And that's a lot more than anyone expected from another monster movie reboot we weren't sure we wanted.