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The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, 2020)

“The Invisible Man”

[Trigger Warning: Abusive relationship]

The Invisible Man begins with the sound of waves crashing upon rocks. Cecelia (Elisabeth Moss) is trapped in a modern day castle, and tonight she will attempt her escape. There’s something almost comforting and familiar in the setting and scenario, but it isn’t one that instantly makes me think of horror movies, rather Gothic thrillers from old Hollywood like Gaslight (1944) and My Name is Julia Ross (1945). By foregoing a clap of thunder in favor of eerily quiet spaces and the seemingly infinite, twisting, labyrinthian structure of the mansion, director Leigh Whannell signals to audiences that this is not your typical remake of the old Universal monster movies. This is a story of a woman attempting to flee the monster and rid her body and mind of the effects of his abuse.  

Cecelia’s relationship with her abusive ex boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is never explained or given a moment of flashback to either the inciting incident of how the abuse started or how their relationships began. We are introduced to these characters at the very end of their relationship. By refusing to create a build-up to the moment of flight for poor Cecelia the film asks us a single question: “Do you believe her?”. Elisabeth Moss has to do much of the heavy lifting, because the script doesn’t give us context clues of their past, and our belief in Cecelia’s feelings about Adrian has to come from how well Moss can portray a character who is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Moss is the star here, and more than capable of such a task. In addition, director Leigh Whannall has to show audiences with the way the camera moves and what images he chooses to characterize Adrian as a predator and show audiences what kind of a man Cecelia was living with and why she needed to escape.  

The most dazzling aspect of The Invisible Man is the choice to render much of the horror as longer stretches of silence where the visual grammar of the scenes forces the viewer to really analyze what’s happening in the frame. In the opening escape Cecelia must leave in the dead of night. She doses Adrian with pills that cause drowsiness and it weakens him and gives her enough wiggle room to attempt to her planned sprint to freedom. Her boyfriend Adrian is an expert in optics and a trailblazer in new surveillance technologies. He has security cameras placed all around his home so he can see and better control everything.  He suffocates by controlling all that he sees. The prevailing motif of Whannell’s choices consider who looks in the first place and how that act in and of itself can be a violation. Adrian is a people watcher, and it is because he can’t control Cecelia that he tries to eliminate her freedom entirely through acts of violence, manipulation and gaslighting.  

The Invisible Man has an interesting history in the horror genre. When the character was originally brought to life in cinema by Claude Rains in the 1933 original he stood in sharp contrast to the other monsters at Universal’s disposal, because it was impossible to empathize with the character. In the 1930s no one called these pictures horror movies, but the much gentler description of “monsters”, an ambivalent word, because a monster can only exist in the eye of the beholder.  Through Universal’s process these creatures reflected humanity’s misunderstanding of those who were different. These characters were not blankly evil. They were usually cursed or had something done to them they never asked for, even Dracula was a victim of plague. Claude Rains’s incarnation of The Invisible Man bucks that trend, because while his experiment causes him to lose his mind and become violent as a result, his quest to become invisible had no value in it whatsoever. He did it merely so he could do it and have his name up in lights with other groundbreaking scientists. What he never considers is that by becoming invisible he can violate the consent of any living person for any reason. To have a material body gives us consequences. Paul Verhoeven had the rare mis-fire with his version of this story when he made Hollow Man (2000), which rendered an arrogant scientist invisible, but it’s weighed down by a level of violence that goes largely unquestioned, and encouraged some of Verhoeven’s worst instincts towards women.  

The newest version of this story is the first one to my knowledge that doesn’t follow the story of the one who is made invisible, but the person who is most effected by the invisibility of another. After Cecelia escapes she lives with friend James Lanier (Aldis Hodge) and his younger daughter (Storm Reid). While living there she tries to put the pieces of her life back together, but she’s struggling to even step out of her front door. She’s hesitant to talk about what Adrian put her through during their relationship and she’s horrified that her abuser still lurks out there somewhere trying to find her. These early moments of coping with trauma come and go a little too quickly, before the big reveal of her ex-boyfriend’s apparent suicide is revealed. Moss is particularly great when left to her own devices, but there’s a jack-hammering mentality of moving from one scene or set-piece to the next that doesn’t allow for maximum emotional effectiveness in these rare, quieter moments. Moss more than delivers on the promise of rendering her character with a heady mix of anxiety, frustration and disorientation, but Whannell doesn’t quite know how to let these early moments of internalization, loneliness and agoraphobia hang in the air. They feel almost perfunctory and directed with less interest than the set-pieces involving Moss and ghostly stalker that come later. And those set-pieces are spectacular.

Whannell got his start making Insidious: Chapter III (2015), and as a result, comes from the James Wan school of thought when directing horror sequences. Much like in The Conjuring films he’s interested in the negative space of the frame and where audiences are pulled to look. While Wan’s ultimate undoing is the inability to tie the eerie quiet of an empty room into a larger emotional scare Whannell has the gift that is Elisabeth Moss, and he’s smart enough to personify the invisibility angle with a venom that arguably implicates viewers for daring to look. The camera then becomes like a weapon that he can use as it drifts from hallway to hallway before resting on an image of Cecelia while she’s asleep, or going about her day, without the knowledge that she’s being watched. It’s an interesting meta-angle on voyeurism and one of the key elements that complicates the push and pull nature of trying to empathize with Cecelia while also looking at her through the eyes of her abuser.  In some cases Whannell will shift the point of view to Cecelia, and ask us to search for The Invisible Man in the frame, but the most important detail is that he’s asking us to look in the first place. It is refreshing to see a horror film built around a visual grammar that beckons audiences to question the relationship we have with watching violence take place. It’s these larger sweeping touches of intent and showmanship that make it easier to ignore some of the smaller flaws of characterization.  

In addition to being ideologically dense the set-pieces are also more often than not very unsettling. Whannell knows how to build up to a particular moment, and there’s one image involving an attic and a can of paint I won’t soon forget. Whannell also seems to understand his history of genre with bodies being drug by an invisible force reminiscing some imagery from Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). In timbre and key the structure also more closely resembles something like The Entity (1982) than it does any other incarnation of The Invisible Man story. These new touches and a complete lack of ironic humour, which is usually the case with producer Jason Blum, make The Invisible Man feel remarkably different from mainstream contemporary horror cinema. But in one way it feels very much of its time and that is how it attempts to render trauma onscreen.  

Trauma has become a word that means absolutely nothing in horror discourse, because it has so dominated the conversation as of late. Depiction of trauma has become a measuring stick of sorts to gauge whether or not a horror film is artistically successful, and while I write about trauma rather frequently I do not adhere to such a blanket statement of the genre. Trauma can become a crutch in which to lean on, and it’s something The Invisible Man struggles with from time to time. “Should a horror film be miserable if it is to be taken seriously by critics?” is a worthwhile question I find myself asking these days, because while my tastes run toward the bowel’s of the agony of life it isn’t a rule that horror films must only be made this way. The Invisible Man is the latest horror film that attempts to tackle trauma in a dignified and thought-provoking way, and those elements are some of its weakest. Elisabeth Moss is phenomenal, and I especially love what she does in the aftermath of a shocking death that completely upends her life, but Whannell is certainly more invested in trauma as an extension of larger set-pieces. There’s a limiting quality to just how much Moss’s character can be gaslit into oblivion without things becoming predictable. The characterization of Cecelia on behalf of the scripting process is thin, because it’s difficult to know much about her beyond her own trauma. We know that she has a soft heart and is prone to big gifts, that she’s an architect and that she’s perfectly comfortable with letting her sister take care of her, and in that case it’s probably been that way her entire life. There are not enough moments of her existing beyond her trauma for me to feel comfortable calling this a great portrait of someone living with mental health scar-tissue. Who is the person behind the trauma is something we rarely get to see in modern horror films and it continues to be one here, though Moss does her best to imbue Cecelia with softer qualities when she gets those rare chances. The Invisible Man is only about trauma as a necessary end-goal for horror set-pieces, and in this case it’s easier to overlook the thinness of its conceit because those set-pieces are the driving force behind the film’s visual language. It seems to want to be about both of these things, but is more successful at staging action than it is rendering a full portrait of someone struggling.  

[SPOILERS FOR FINAL SCENE]

But right when I was expecting a typical final note of triumph at the close of a late set-piece things took a hard right turn in a way that complicated matters. Near the end it’s revealed that Adrian hadn’t died, and it was his brother who was wearing Adrian’s new invisible tech suit and torturing Cecelia. Adrian had been tied up in the basement of his mansion the entire time, but Cecelia doesn’t believe this to be true. She thinks Adrian did everything horrible to her. She is adamant about this being the truth. What follows is a scene that sees Cecelia agreeing to reunite with Adrian for dinner. She attaches a wire to herself and asks James to listen to their conversation. Adrian seems fine at first, but he very subtly manipulates Cecelia with gifts in ways that are all too familiar for her. They have a conversation where he never admits his own guilt, though his mask of kindness begins to crack with his shaking hands, and muted annoyance as Cecelia begs for closure. Nothing has ever changed for them, but with the information that Adrian was locked downstairs it muddies the waters of who did what. Whose word is fact? Cecelia goes to the bathroom and sneaks away to put on the invisibility suit she knows is downstairs. The camera never leaves Adrian while she is doing these things. They’re merely inferred. As we watch him a knife rises on its own and slits his throat. Cecelia kills him, while wearing the invisible suit. She believes it’s the only way she can get closure. Because Adrian never admitted to doing anything, James has to ask himself who he believes. Audiences do too. It’s a bold choice to ask us this question considering how stories of sexual assault and abuse usually play out. With this ending The Invisible Man gives more depth to everything that came before and dares us to ask questions about patriarchal structures and the belief that usually isn’t granted to the words of women. An invisible man is never invisible.  

Do you believe her story?

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