Content Warning: This review and film it accompanies contains discussion of domestic violence and abuse
Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man captured my attention with its first trailer. One of my favorite stories and Universal Monsters, the Invisible Man has always offered up a look at humanity with the main character’s descent into madness as the story progressed. But, it was clear from the trailer that the protagonist wouldn’t be him, but instead, a woman moving through trauma.
In Whannell’s take on the iconic character, we get a terrifying modern tale of obsession and abuse that, from the trailer alone, showcased what many abuse survivors face during and after their trauma. Played by Elisabeth Moss, Cecilia is trapped in a violent, controlling relationship with a wealthy and brilliant scientist, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Scared for her life, Cecilia escapes in the middle of the night and goes into hiding, aided by her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), their childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge), and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid).
But when Cecilia’s abusive ex commits suicide and leaves her a generous portion of his vast fortune, Cecilia suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of eerie coincidences turn lethal, threatening the lives of those she loves, Cecilia’s sanity begins to unravel as she desperately tries to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see. Written and directed by Whannell, the premise of the film is terrifying and the response online was immediate, with many women expressing their experiences with gaslighting after abuse.
While this isn’t the story we’re used to, Whannell’s The Invisible Man might just be the story we need. Trauma as the center of horror carries weight for the audience, and in the genre’s design, you’re expected to empathize with the protagonist. As they struggle, you struggle. As they feel fear, you do too. The genre facilitates an empathetic bond which is one of the reasons social horror films hit audiences hard while also providing commentary on larger issues. In this story, the audience is forced to confront the realities of abuse and its psychological toll. While Whannell does show some fairly intense violence in the film, we don’t see the physical brutalization that Cecilia faced in her relationship and, like the Invisible Man himself, what we don’t see is what is still terrifying.
The beginning of the film is all about Cecilia leaving her abuser, her PTSD from the abuse, and coming to terms with life free from him. The specter of abuse is present even before the physical monster is. The genius of the film is that it uses the same camera angles, from Adrian’s perspective, from the very beginning. He is the abuser, the tormentor, the monster from moment one. When Cecilia sits at a table, her sister and her friend ready to listen to her story, she’s scared. Even then, with her abuser dead, she’s terrified. Her breath catches, she face wrings twists, and the way she describes the control he exerted over her cut like daggers.
Moss’s performance was jawdropping, real, and painful. Her emotion and her fear – it pushes the audience to sympathize, to want to protect her. But then, the perspective shifts from hers to how the world sees her. We know that the acts being committed aren’t by her. We know that Adrian is there. We know. And yet, we’re left to her gaslighted, ignored, and treated as if she’s losing her mind. While this is the reaction to her claiming that her ex faked his death and is tormenting her, the reaction from her family, friends, and institutions that she interacts with is also very real. When you come forward about abuse, it’s your word versus theirs, and when they have power and a pristine image to the outside, it’s a fight just to be believed.
Because the dialogue, specifically when coupled with Moss’s acting is so real, The Invisible Man continually strokes a raw nerve. It winds you up from the opening scene and keeps pushing you throughout the film. Because of this, Cecilia’s path to revenge is cathartic and deserved. The Invisible Man offers a good payoff, even if it takes a tad too long to present it. While the film is just over two hours, the moments of watching Cecililia spiral makes it feel so much longer. Additionally, the use of CG in the film is jarring, given the very intimate nature of Whannell’s directorial style. Sub-par science fiction visuals rubbing against a beautifully shot film are what lower the film’s impact. However, these are mostly contained to the third act with only one occurring in the second act. Thankfully, the plot twists and Moss’s acting pull you right back in.
That said, outside of the raw and emotional portrayal of abuse, what happens after, and of course, the Invisible Man, the horror in the film is never cheaply won. Whannell uses sound design to heighten the tension. It drops out and then sharply shatters the screen timed to panic attacks and reveals. Additionally, the framing of each shot makes you question Cecilia’s safety from the jump. Whannell beautifully uses wide spaces that make the setting feel cold and isolated. In the moments when Cecilia is given glimpses of peace, the shots are warm, close, and then, they shift. In stark contrast, when Adrian’s ghost and the possibility of his presence are involved, Cecilia is made small in her surroundings. The ceiling feels unreachable, the walls are sprawling, and when something looks slightly off in a small piece of the frame, your heart quickens. Because of this, every scene becomes uncomfortable.
I can not stress enough how much I love The Invisible Man but at the same time, I don’t think I will ever watch it again. The scares are elicited through pain and tapping trauma, which makes the experience a shaking one. The film has layers of horror, but also layers of commentary. I see The Invisible Man as yet another jewel in the Blumhouse cap, I’ve never been more thankful for Universal’s “Dark Universe” being abandoned. And while I find this movie phenomenal, if your trauma is still fresh, you may want to be cautious coming into The Invisible Man. A painful catharsis, Leigh Whannell knocked this new take on an old tale out of the park and it will shake you to your core.
The Invisible Man will be playing nationwide on February 28, 2020.
The Invisible Man
I can not stress enough how much I love The Invisible Man but at the same time, I don’t think I will ever watch it again. The scares are elicited through pain and tapping trauma which makes the experience a shaking one. The film has layers of horror, but also layers of commentary.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.