“The Invisible Man” is an effective thriller. Based (very loosely) on the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, this new version of the oft told story is elevated by a strong visual style and an unconventional (for the genre at least) subversion of the “final girl” horror trope, which allows the female protagonist to take control of her own narrative.
Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) is trapped in an abusive relationship with her controlling boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who also happens to be a scientific genius and an expert in the field of optics. Weeks after Cecilia narrowly escapes his castle-like mansion by the ocean, she’s coping with the trauma of the experience, worried he’ll track her down again. Then word comes that Adrian has committed suicide. The relief is short lived, though. Soon weird things start happening, things that make her family and friends question her sanity. But is Cecilia going crazy or is Adrian somehow finding a new way to destroy her life?
The film’s title gives that away, but the movie itself doesn’t waste the audience’s time with the question. Cecilia is a smart character and, thankfully, figures out pretty quickly what’s happening to her. The film’s pace is refreshing, the characters act logically enough that the important story beats are reached quickly, meanwhile numerous and lengthy suspense sequences are given the time they need to build an atmosphere of dread before the potent scares hit.
The motto in filmmaking is usually “show, don’t tell.” “The Invisible Man” skirts that issue, and gets away with; it’s probably even stronger for it. We don’t see the abuse Cecilia suffers at the hands of Adrian. Instead, we see the agony he’s caused her through Moss’ powerful, haunted performance, the terror in her eyes when recounting her life with him, the way she can barely get the words out. She’s so good, we don’t need to actually see what he’s done to her to understand what he’s done to her.
Writer/director Leigh Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio deliver crisp visuals (there’s a wonderful juxtaposition between the cold, clinical concrete decor and warm amber light of Adrian’s mansion) that are precisely framed, using negative space effectively to keep the audience guessing whether the invisible antagonist is there or not.
But what really sets the movie apart is its point of view. Rather than follow the titular character as he descends into madness, as previous iterations of this story have done, the focus here is the initial victim, but she doesn’t remain that, as she reclaims her sense of self and her authority over the course of the movie. Moss’ Cecilia is truly the film’s core, the emotional center that carries us through the story. In turn, we learn very little about Adrian, barely glimpsing him before his literal disappearing act. This renders his invisibility even more frightening. He’s a malevolent, unseen force. Not a literal ghost, but a figurative boogey man.
Whannell’s previous film, the micro-budgeted, action/sci-fi hybrid “Upgrade,” was a near miss. Good atmosphere and style hampered by an “edgy” ending that confused dark with smart. “The Invisible Man” is a leap for the writer/director, expertly delivering the scares audiences will be coming for while wrapping everything in a narrative that gives voice and urgency to its heroine and ending in a satisfying but still unexpected way. This “Invisible Man” is worth seeing.