James Clay // Film Critic
THE INVISIBLE MAN
There are more than a few occasions in Leigh Whannell’s Blumhouse-produced remake of the classic Universal Monsters film THE INVISIBLE MAN that will take your literal breath away. Oddly enough, Whannell has figured out to make a fear that you cannot see be tangible.
He, along with its lead actor Elisabeth Moss (THE HANDMAID’S TALE), found a sleek and sleazy angle that hums like a finely-tuned paperback novel, beefed up into a timely take on throwback terror. While it may push the boundaries too far with logistical issues, Whannell’s picture fills the big screen with a new type of spectral fear.
The film begins in the dead of night with an excruciatingly tense cold open: a woman, Celia Kass (Moss), is attempting to escape the ultra-modern home of her hunky, sleeping boyfriend. We’re in a place of virtual silence, where the slight sounds of a pill bottle shaking or a bag zipping fill the void, which, in turn, ramps up the tension. One false move could mean the difference between freedom and returning to a relationship that is more of a gulag than a sanctuary. Her plan was carefully planned and is exacted with meticulous detail. The real tragedy is he will never let her mind be free.
Cecilia Kass is an architect embroiled in this terribly abusive relationship with her tech genius boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Adrian has put a proverbial plastic bag over her life since they met three years ago. Cecilia tries to have some semblance of normalcy after her escape is carried out with the help of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) and childhood cop friend James (Aldis Hodge), the latter of whom is on triple duty as a caregiver. James is the father of a teenage daughter (Storm Reid), and he’s a detective for the local police. With all that, he still has enough room in his big heart to help C cope with the seemingly simple task of going to get the paper at the curb. The anguish has consumed her life, and for good reason. Adrian is a powerful public figure. He has the funds to threaten omnipresence, and his only purpose in life is to occupy that space in C’s mind.
The news comes that Adrian has committed suicide, but not before providing Cecilia with a hefty trust upon his passing. While this should come as a sign of relief, financially and mentally, this only starts to pick apart every piece of her identity. We learn that Adrian may have another method of mayhem to torture Cecilia. In her own words, “This is what he does.”
Moss has made her theatrical career playing downtrodden and mentally unhinged characters for years, and her take on Cecilia doesn’t stray too far from that mold. However, her performance relies on her connection with the audience. She’s been gassed up with toxic fuel for years, and the result is broken down psychology that causes her to be isolated from the ones she loves most. The majority of the swelling anxiety in this sci-fi horror mashup comes with what is not on screen. The threat of violence is almost worse than when it actually happens, and Moss works all of her sympathetic magic for us to fear for Cecilia’s well-being as she starts to lose her grip.
The genius in this Moss-Whannell collaboration is Cecilia always straddles the line, never to veer too far into helplessness. She did escape a compound from an evil mastermind, after all. Whannell’s dynamic direction uses the space to create a conversation with the audience, hinting at what may be looking back at you while the imagination is doing all the heavy lifting. After a bit of acting, Whannell has developed into a filmmaker. You may remember him as the other guy in the bathroom in the first SAW movie – a film in which he also wrote. Whannell finally had a breakout after 2018’s small-budgeted sci-fi actioner UPGRADE became a sleeper hit and one of the most purely entertaining films of that calendar year.
As successful as THE INVISIBLE MAN is at being a mishmash of genre elements, with a glitchy score by Benjamin Wallfisch pulsing throughout, there are a few slight elements that break the illusion a bit tonally. Namely, a bonkers police shootout that goes a little over the top. Other than that, this chilly rendition has one helluva poker face.
With the INVISIBLE MAN, there is plenty to analyze with its ripe commentary on the #MeToo age. But in all honesty, stories like this have been long present in filmmaking, especially horror. It’s just that audiences and creators are more finely tuned with the transgressions of abusive relationships.
What Whannell gets so right about this film is the dexterity in this metaphor. It avoids becoming overtly hostile to overshadow the thrills. So, get ready, because after you leave the theater, that empty sofa from across the room will be looking a bit less comfy and a lot more creepy.
THE INVISIBLE MAN opens nationwide today.