The Invisible Man was written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Upgrade), based on the novel by H.G. Wells, and stars Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia, a woman on the run from her abusive ex-boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who is told a while after her escape that he was found dead in an apparent suicide. Much to her surprise and confusion, Adrian’s final wishes in his last will and testament state that Cecilia be granted $5 million from his trust, which is managed by his brother Tom (Michael Dorman), but only if she is not convicted of any crimes as the amount is paid in $10k installments each month, and is not ruled to be mentally incompetent. This causes some complications as she goes about her day to day, however, as Cecilia begins to suspect that Adrian may not actually be dead; in fact, he could be stalking her without her even knowing he’s there, using some sort of technology that allows him to be entirely invisible. With little evidence to go on as Adrian finds new ways to torture and gaslight her day after day, Cecilia must find a way to prove to everyone around her that Adrian’s miraculous invisibility and the horrors she endures because of it are truly real, and that he is far more dangerous than anyone could have possibly imagined. This film also stars Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, and Harriet Dyer.
2020 has been a somewhat strange year in film so far. As of now, we’ve had two very good January movies from Guy Ritchie (The Gentlemen) and a formerly Michael Bay-led franchise (Bad Boys for Life), a box office flop and unmitigated narrative disaster for one of the most renowned actors in the world with RDJ’s Dolittle, the first-ever straight-up horror film from Neon (distributors of the best-picture winning Parasite) with The Lodge, and yet a second garbage pile from Blumhouse’s Jeff Wadlow in Fantasy Island. There were also, of course, the usual garbage action movies and other PG-13 horror movies that were just as lazy and ineffective as most of their counter-programming, but those mentioned above feel more like anomalies than anything else (well, maybe except for Neon getting into straightforward horror – that was bound to happen eventually). One of the strangest things about the year thus far, though, is that as a collective, there has not yet seemed to bee a film from 2020, especially in the horror genre, that people could collectively rally behind as being a truly great film, something everyone could sink their teeth into and enjoy regardless of what brand of horror one subscribes to, that people would be telling other people they simply have to see. Truth be told, I’m not sure that Leigh Whannell’s take on The Invisible Man is going to become that movie (it hasn’t even finished its opening weekend yet), but it certainly comes far closer than anything else released so far in 2020.
Not long before attending the first Thursday night screening for this film, I gave myself a chance to catch up on what the story was really about by watching the original Invisible Man from 1933, directed by James Whale from a script by R.C. Sherriff. What I saw was a greatly respectable and innovative film that in no way prepared me for what I was about to experience going in to Leigh Whannell’s take on the material. Whannell takes the story of The Invisible Man and almost turns a complete 180 with it. Whereas the 1933 original (and any remakes or knock-offs thereof) chose to focus on the poor man’s plight with having turned himself invisible and needing to get back to his visible self, Whannell instead takes the approach of focusing on the victim’s perspective, putting us in the shoes of those a madman and stalker such as the titular character would hurt, and in some cases, irreparably damage. And what better way to put us into those shoes than to layer the narrative over a “believe women” thematic approach? It’s in taking this route with the story that the director taps into the true horror of not just the actions of the invisible man, but in the gaslighting of the central victim by both her abusive stalker and (more importantly) those around her. As Cecilia becomes more and more tortured by Adrian, and he gets braver and braver with how he decides to enact that torture, she looks to be more and more insane to the supporting characters in the film, and almost all of them at one point or another refuse to believe her, often resulting in deadly encounters for those involved. In short, Whannell is saying with this that not believing women often ultimately leads to dire consequences for all involved, and it is often the case that the true danger lies in them not being listened to.
The Invisible Man is a horror movie, and every great horror movie needs a great horror monster, which is why an entrepreneurial tech-bro type with lots of money and a one-woman obsession is just about the scariest thing Whannell could have used to tell this story. We need to feel how dangerous this guy is and could turn out to be. One way this comes across brilliantly is in the camerawork. Anyone who actually saw the supremely underrated Upgrade back in 2018 knows that Whannell has an eye for exactly how to move the camera to achieve the most creative look possible that doesn’t compromise on the feelings of the moment, instead elevating the action in service of the story. Any time Adrian (well, the invisible Adrian) is not on screen, you can feel his presence like a breath on the back of your neck, and the fantastic sound design in this film never lets you forget that he could be in any part of whichever frame you happen to be looking at and you wouldn’t know it. Never knowing where the danger could be coming from isn’t exactly a new thing, especially in horror movies, but to feel as if the culprit truly could be right there next to our main character even in non-set piece segments of the movie, even when everything is calm and peaceful, is a terrifying thing, and Whannell knows exactly how to exploit the sort of tension one feels that comes along with that.
It’s not just the performance of Whannell behind the camera, though, that sells this story. No one who’s seen anything she’s ever been in needs to be told how talented Elisabeth Moss is, but here, she turns it up to another level. Her performance teeters on the edge of horror so delicately that not a single frame of her face ever feels like you’re watching a horror movie. Through her vocal delivery and body language, what we understand is that someone is stalking her and that she’s petrified by it, but the performance never once betrays the script by making it feel like a project or feel even the slightest bit manufactured. She captures so brilliantly each and every nuance of what it feels like just to realize someone you can’t see is in the same room as you, so much so that at times I genuinely believed there was an invisible person standing behind her or in front of her or just off to the left. This movie doesn’t work anywhere close to as well as it does without a performance like hers, and this is sure to be looked at as one of her finest for years to come, even with all of the other great ones she’s turned in thus far. She truly is at the top of her game with this, and the fact that Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman, and Harriet Dyer are all able to match her beat for beat when they’re on screen is a testament to how talented they all are, given how much she’s giving them to work with.
Truly, I don’t know if this film will ever go down in history as one of the greatest horror films of all time in the long run, but Leigh Whannell’s take on The Invisible Man certainly will be looked at by many as a prime example of how to execute a great horror remake, especially if the source material is as old as this one’s. Whannell finds something new to say in every scene, some new horror to be shocked by or frustratedly tense because of, and finds the most profoundly creative way to say it that he’s able to execute within the parameters he’s set by his script. Not every single minute of it is a constant 100 (though it never drops below at least 80), and it can feel a little long-winded in the second act, but no other film this year has accomplished its ultimate mission so effectively, and no other film this year has proved to be as thematically rich or narratively engaging as this one.
I’m giving “The Invisible Man” a 9.3/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.