The invisible man has been around since H.G. Wells first gave him life in 1897, an idea which has culminated in dozens of film and television iterations throughout various genres. The most famous are of course the original 1933 version (part of Universal’s original monster universe that spawned two sequels), Chevy Chase’s comedic-oriented Memoirs of the Invisible Man, and Kevin Bacon’s horror/thriller Hollow Man. Other than the main character somehow becoming invisible, the only thing that connects most of these iterations is the heavy focus on the trials and tribulations of the person that becomes invisible.
This is where writer and director Leigh Whannell smartly separates his version of The Invisible Man from the rest of the pack. Instead of putting the spotlight on the person who becomes invisible, Whannell focuses all of his attention on the victim of the invisible. By doing so, the film becomes more atmospherically chilling, adding a heavy psychological element that raises the level of the story to fresh, new heights.
The opening sequence tells us all we need to know about Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) and the abusive relationship she’s trapped in. After drugging her boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), with diazepam, she uses the technology of the heavily-secure mansion to her advantage in order to escape.
We’ve been groomed over the years to expect the worst to happen in a sequence like this. In most horror films, the moment the character looks away from the screen she’s watching to make sure her abuser is still asleep, they’ll suddenly be gone when they look back. Whannell expertly uses this trope, as well as some very crafty camera movements, to keep you fully on edge as you wait for that very moment to arrive… which it never does.
This ability to hold tension is maintained throughout the film as Cecilia slowly becomes more and more unstable. She is so afraid of Adrian, she can’t even go outside to get the mail. Not even Adrian’s death calms her nerves, as none of it makes any sense to her. When she starts to believe that Adrian faked his death and is watching her somehow, her mental state deteriorates, causing everyone around her to become unsettled by her madness.
It’s not long before Cecilia’s life spins even further out of control. Her sister (Harriet Dyer) pushes her away after receiving a cold, harsh email, and her best friend (Aldis Hodge) becomes distant when it appears Cecilia is doing things that can’t be explained, such as hitting his daughter (Storm Reid). At this point, it’s hard to tell if there’s someone physically there or if she’s simply losing her mind.
To add insult to injury, part of Adrian’s trust bequeaths Cecilia five million dollars spread out over several years contingent on her ability to stay sane and refrain from committing a crime. Sounds easy, but based on the way Michael Dorman portrays Adrian’s brother (who is also his attorney), we know something sinister is in the works. Despite us knowing that Adrian is the title character, the sense that perhaps everything is all in her head permeates the movie; It wouldn’t be a surprise to have Whannell pull the rug out from under us.
Once we learn the truth of the situation, Whannell pushes the story forward into the third act with an unexpected, but satisfying conclusion that opens the door to what could very well be an interesting sequel.
The entire film plays extremely well into our inherent fear of something lurking in the shadows. We’ve all had those times when we’ve been alone in a dark, quiet house and feel that we’re being watched; that something is there with us. As mentioned earlier, Whannell eloquently uses that fear by placing Cecilia in familiar ghost story territory, but twisting our expectations to keep us guessing.
To accomplish this, Whannell invites us into long, drawn out scenes that in any other movie might lose their muster due to how long they take to develop. Unlike a lot of other horror movies that use music and jump scares to fake us out, though, Whannell gives us nothing but the characters, the setting and the paranoia.
One of the more brilliant things he does early on is move the camera away from Cecilia to some innocuous hallway or wall where you expect something to happen, only to be disappointed because nothing does. These are mixed with moments where something does happen when we don’t expect it. We’re never given a chance to settle in because Whannell continually subverts every expectation, which gives the film a clear shot of adrenaline in the subtler, quieter moments.
If I had to knock points off for the film, it would have to be in the cinematography department. Having much of the film set in extreme darkness certainly plays into the paranoia of Cecilia’s situation; when it’s hard to see what’s really happening, it allows us to feel a sense of what Cecilia must be feeling in that moment. At the same, because it’s difficult to see what’s happening, it makes it hard to fully connect to her and her situation. It’s a bit of a catch-22, as we want to see what’s happening on screen, but to do so might ruin the uneasiness of the scene.
Some of the side stories aren’t fully fleshed out, either, but that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to watch a woman go insane because a man who may have found a way to make himself invisible could very well be haunting her. And for that, Whannell uses a masterful hand of storytelling and atmosphere to give us a horror-thriller that pulls on every instinctive string we’ve been groomed with over the years and shift them into the great, obsessive unknown.
My Grade: A
Seberg proves that when Kristen Stewart is given material she can connect with, her talent rises to a much higher level. As Jean Seberg, who was spied on by the government when she started funding civil rights leaders in the late sixties, Stewart brilliantly captures the paranoia and the fear of a young woman caught between what she thinks is right and what others with more power perceive to be wrong. A-
Next week, new movies include Onward and The Way Back. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.