The Invisible Man
2020, R, 110 min. Directed by Leigh Whannell. Starring Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Benedict Hardie.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Feb. 28, 2020
February has truly been a landmark month for genre movies about gaslighting. Hot on the heels of the outstanding winter horror The Lodge comes The Invisible Man, the latest attempt to revive a signature Universal Monsters creature for a new generation. And by translating the more inhuman elements of the title character to the modern day, writer/director Leigh Whannell is able to create a film that should appeal to horror fans old and new.
Adrian (Jackson-Cohen) is a successful inventor who has pushed the field of optics far into the future. He’s also an abusive and controlling monster, forcing his wife Cecilia (Moss) to live in constant fear for her own well-being. When Cecilia finds the courage to leave him, she is shocked to learn that Adrian has committed suicide in his alleged grief. But as she works to transition to something resembling a normal life, Cecilia soon suspects that Adrian may be subtly influencing even the smallest parts of her life.
If Whannell was looking to do justice to one of horror’s most iconic characters, he mostly succeeded. What’s most surprising about the film is where its strengths lie. In adapting a classic horror narrative, Whannell proves that his instincts are those of an action director, not a horror auteur. After Cecilia’s thrilling escape from Adrian’s oceanside house, The Invisible Man takes a surprisingly long time to find its footing. There are a few clever visual twists – the camera frequently pans to empty frames to great effect – but Adrian’s acts of psychological abuse feel like the actions of a second-rate poltergeist.
The power of these scenes should be their impact on Cecilia’s relationships. The more confident Adrian becomes in his invisible machinations, the more we are meant to despair at her support system’s collective abandonment. The actions themselves, though, are the most familiar of horror tropes. Environmental scares work in horror films when you are made to question what you are seeing, but neither Cecilia nor the audience is given reason to doubt what she’s experiencing. That drains most of the scares of their onscreen power.
But when the movie pivots into action? That’s when Whannell’s best instincts really take over. By the end of this weekend, everyone will have compared The Invisible Man to Terminator 2, but just because a point is common doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The second half of the film is a delightful love letter to Cameron’s blockbuster, with a badass female character surviving as security guards and police succumb to a technological killer. Whannell turns Adrian’s suit into the thing of nightmares; watching his character flicker in-and-out of view during the hospital fight is every bit as imaginative a visual as we’d expect from the director of Upgrade.
And all of it hinges on Moss. As The Invisible Man pivots from horror to social commentary to action and, finally, to revenge, Moss’ performance is what holds the entire film together. We feel her uncertainty when she saves herself from a lifetime of abuse. We also bask in her anger when she finds it in herself to bring the fight back to Adrian. There may be two genres at work in The Invisible Man, but there’s only one Elisabeth Moss, and her performance makes Whannell’s film worth discussing far beyond the realm of the title character.