The Invisible Man, 2020.
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell.
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Storm Reid, Aldis Hodge, Harriet Dyer, Amali Golden, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen.
When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.
At a time when Hollywood’s eagerness to dust off lucrative, dormant IP for glossy, cynically conceived reboots is at an unprecedented high, there’s something deeply refreshing, even encouraging, about Universal deciding to give their new take on The Invisible Man a $7 million budget and hand it to the creator of the Saw franchise, Leigh Whannell.
After all, it’s no secret that the studio was originally assembling a blockbuster reboot of the brand starring Johnny Depp as part of the now-defunct Dark Universe, a “franchise” both kickstarted and quickly buried by the Tom Cruise-starring dud The Mummy.
The film we finally ended up with couldn’t be much more of a polar opposite, for though it’s at times inconceivable what Whannell has executed with such minimal resources, the real triumph of 2020’s The Invisible Man is how cannily it melds genuine pathos-soaked drama with the slushier demands of genre entertainment.
Just as Hereditary felt like a bereavement drama spiced with expertly-crafted supernatural hooey, this is first and foremost a character-driven film about a woman, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), struggling to re-adjust to life after escaping her abusive former partner, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
Though optics magnate Adrian dies by suicide early in the story, Cecilia quickly finds herself haunted by an increasingly invasive, seemingly haunting invisible presence which she believes to be Adrian, all while her immediate friends and family understandably fail to take her claims seriously.
Thankfully, Whannell resists the temptation to indulge in played-out mental illness tropes; it’s made extremely clear early on in The Invisible Man that Cecilia is of sound mind and the title character is a tangible reality, choosing to focus instead on her desperation to end her torment and prove she isn’t crazy.
There is obviously far more to this story than its simple setup, though nothing can be gained from elaborating on the finer points of the movie’s plot here. While you may know where much of the tale is going, Whannell has a number of surprises in store – some genuinely diverting, while a couple admittedly smack of a filmmaker trying just a little too hard to get one over on viewers.
When the constituent elements are this strong, it almost feels immodest that Whannell ultimately opts for a couple of twists too many, in turn needlessly encouraging the audience to consider the increasing abundance of logical fallacies present throughout the story. Though the questions raised are hardly film-breaking, one can’t help but feel that the writer-director would’ve been better off keeping the story and its “gotcha!” moments a little more measured.
After all, this is a film that otherwise revels in its restraint; despite the backing of a major studio, vast segments of The Invisible Man play out in near-total silence, scored only by ambient noise as Cecilia scans every room she enters for possible “tells” of where her invisible aggressor might be.
Cutting his teeth on low-budget horror fare has certainly served Whannell well here, for though he mines impressive technical mileage out of the money given to him, many of the film’s most enervating sequences amount to scarcely more than a calm pan around a room where we, the audience, knows the antagonist is hiding – probably, anyway.
Just like the Paranormal Activity movies before it, The Invisible Man creates a canvas for audiences to do much of the work themselves, filling in the invisible blanks as they anxiously wait for the villain to strike. And though these quietly tense moments inevitably build to the occasional jolting moment, they never once lean on cheap jumps or lazy tension chords; every loud noise is an environmental sound, typically created by the Invisible Man himself as he taunts Cecilia.
But of course, Whannell eventually has to dispense with the minimalist magic tricks, and Cecilia’s consequent showdowns with her spectral tormentor are really quite spectacular. Given the complexity of staging elaborate fight sequences in which one character needs to be visibly absent, it’s shocking how technically sleek it all is; even during the flashier set-pieces later on, there’s a genuine stylishness to the carnage on offer, with virtually no indication that such little money was spent on it.
Again, though, don’t expect anything outwardly bombastic; the action is at all times married to the film’s grounded delivery, with Whannell’s deliciously smooth, motion-tracked camerawork brilliantly replicating the same heightened, economically surreal aesthetic of his prior sci-fi outing Upgrade.
But all in all, The Invisible Man circles back to Moss, without who it’d be decidedly less easy to accept the more dubious storytelling elements. Her performance, painting a pained picture of an abused woman in a perpetual state of trauma, feels as real and believable as you’d expect from any straight-up “realistic” drama, and even when the film is at its silliest, Moss sells the material with all the gravitas you’d expect from a classic Mad Men episode.
If Whannell’s dramatic reach occasionally exceeds his grasp, it’s easy enough to forgive considering the overall persuasiveness of his vision on both a character and aesthetic level. This is a genre film that impressively melds its more outlandish elements with a tangible emotional authenticity, ensuring that abuse victims are likely to find Cecilia an endlessly relatable character no matter that she’s battling a guy who’s found a way to turn himself invisible.
Though sometimes over-keen to sacrifice logic for a tricksy payoff, the rebooted The Invisible Man is a triumph of low-fi invention elevated by a crackerjack Elisabeth Moss performance.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.