Leigh Whannell’s reimagining of the classic Universal Studios horror film The Invisible Man starts where many movies of its genre end: A tense escape. When we meet her, we know virtually nothing about Elisabeth Moss’s character, Cecilia, other than that she needs to get out of where she is. The location is a gorgeous beachfront property whose facade is almost entirely made of glass. It’s outfitted with a security system that she must disarm quickly, lest she gets caught. The man she’s escaping dozes in bed, apparently drugged by former contents of the Diazepam bottle she (and the camera) scrutinizes. She is able to finally break free, sliding into her sister’s car with that now awakened guy on her heels.
It is an elegant, exciting way to impart a message that has become part of the contemporary, socially conscious lexicon: Believe women. We do just that in that breath-taking opening scene. What follows for the next hour is almost as stimulating: An exploration of trauma that shows in addition to telling. In contrast to 2018's Halloween, whose press tour repeatedly reminded us that the film was about trauma in an apparent attempt to convince us that what we were seeing was something more valuable than another crappy/fun Halloween sequel, The Invisible Man cleverly walks the walk. Two weeks after her escape, Cecilia is staying with a cop friend James (Aldis Hodge), but still shellshocked. She paints over the webcam built into her laptop to thwart surveillance. She rattles when a jogger brushes up against her when she dips a toe outside. She can barely bring herself to describe the abuse she fled—her sister attempts to pry it out of her and she explains, “He was in complete control of everything. Including me.” When asked if this guy—her husband, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen)—hit her, she retorts, “Among other things.” His soon revealed death provides virtually no comfort to her emotional state.
And soon enough, she’s in physical danger all over again. This being The Invisible Man, some guy has to materialize out of thin air, and soon it seems Adrian has. Or is Cecilia just staring intently at nothing, paranoid? Initially, The Invisible Man does a masterful job of playing hide and seek with Cecilia’s coherence, and Moss does a bang-up job of riding the edge. The man whom she thinks is there, but might not be, is an effective cinematic symbol of her character’s PTSD. She is haunted in a way that is both familiar to the horror genre and specific to Cecilia’s situation of abuse. I wish the movie would have stayed there, suspended in uncertainty like a sentence punctuated by an ellipsis. I wish the movie were subtle beyond its industry’s demands.
See, The Invisible Man has to evolve beyond a meditation, as it is a major studio release with a major star. (It’s also another shot at modernizing Universal’s lineup of classic horror after the flop of 2017's The Mummy.) As the presence of some invisible man becomes, heh, clearer, the movie still has some cool tricks to share—a long, unbroken shot of a grease fire breaking out on a pan of cooking bacon and then being extinguished; a shot of breath over Cecilia’s shoulder apparently from her clandestine stalker; pictures she discovers on her phone that someone took of her sleeping. It’s chilling. Until it isn’t.
About midway through the movie, the invisible man makes his presence undeniable by beating up Cecilia in James’s house. She is held up by her neck, slammed against the wall, and thrown across a room. So brutal is this scene that if a visible man were depicting doing it, it would likely be too extreme for the mass audience this movie is attempting to attract (and I seriously doubt the MPAA would have let it pass through with an R rating). I felt the moral center of the movie evaporating, leaving the residue of trash. The Invisible Man turns out to be just another dumb movie that is fairly blasé about depicting women’s suffering for the sake of entertainment. Said depictions are, of course, a tradition in horror cinema, one featured in movies that I enjoy, even, from less enlightened times. But those movies rarely give you very much to work with intellectually or distinguish themselves with a pronounced sensitivity. The Invisible Man’s arc feels like a bait and switch. It feels like a cheat, this apparent emotional investment in an abused character that the movie then proceeds to abuse for the sake of entertainment and genre convention.
It doesn’t help that The Invisible Man’s logic becomes increasingly preposterous. Cecilia is blamed for several crimes committed by this invisible man, who’s gaslighting her, but her dead husband’s brother (Michael Dorman) offers to make her murder charges go away (???) if he cooperates with a scheme he proposes (I’m intentionally being vague here for the sake of not spoiling events that lead to the ending). The suit that facilitates invisibility, it turns out, was invented by her husband (“a world leader in the field of optics”). It’s covered in cameras and from afar looks like a black strawberry. During a prolonged physical struggle, Cecilia is able to stab it, which puts it on the fritz, blinking in and out of view. It seems to do this when it’s most convenient for the film (long stretches of the suit returning to invisibility allow for felicitous maneuvering on the part of the villain). By the time the last scene rolls around, the movie is nothing but a vessel for rage. Members of the audience I saw it in cheered at the climax, moved by catharsis, but I just wondered where The Invisible Man’s brain went. Disappeared somewhere, I guess.
The Invisible Man is currently in theaters.