The Invisible Man
US (2020) Dir. Leigh Whannell
Some people can’t see what is in front of them, especially with regard to the truth. They only see what they want to see and are not prepared to consider an alternative point of view. If they would open their eyes and look out beyond… Have I milked the whole “vision” motif enough yet?
Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) succeeds in a desperate escape from the lavish cliff top home she shares with her controlling and abusive optics expert partner Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). A few weeks later, now living with police officer friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), Cecilia learns Adrian has committed suicide and left a $5 million fortune in his will for her.
At first, Cecilia feels like her life is turning around, but spooky occurrences start to affect her mental health. Recalling Adrian’s chilling words about how he will never let her go, Cecilia believes Adrian faked his suicide and is behind this strange behaviour, but nobody else will agree. When those close to Cecilia’s are attacked in her presence, she is locked up in a mental hospital. Is Adrian extracting his revenge or is Cecilia losing her mind?
H.G Wells’ classic 1897 novel has been adapted a few times, the definitive version for many being the 1933 version starring Claude Rains. Originally part of Universal’s Dark Universe series, The Invisible Man reboot was to star Johnny Depp but the dismal flop of 2017’s The Mummy saw it shelved. Revived in 2019, director Leigh Whannell not only modernises the story without compromising its integrity, but also makes the premise of invisibility frightening again.
Whanell’s script achieves two creditable and salient things – it shifts the focus away from how the person who is invisible is affected to the people who can’t him, and it ties in the psychological effects with the prevalent current issue of mental health. It would be easy to assume this relates to Cecilia being told she is mad for imagining a dead Adrian is spooking her, but it runs much deeper with that.
The first 10 minutes of the film are devoted to the daring escape. Cecilia creeps out of bed having drugged Adrian, silently making her way through the house to a control room to disable the many cameras observing everything. If it wasn’t for the dog barking Adrian may never have woken up and attempted to stop Cecilia. It’s tight but with help from her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), Cecilia finally achieves her freedom.
Escaping from Alcatraz was probably easier, but Cecilia wasn’t just physically trapped but mentally and emotionally as well, According to her, Adrian dictated what she wore, read, ate, if and when she was allowed out, driving her to formulate a desperate plan to free herself from his tyranny. This trauma meant Cecilia was afraid to step outside alone for a long time, so luckily childhood cop friend James is there to support her.
But James can’t help Cecilia when mishaps such as her portfolio vanishing from her bag on the day of a job interview, or a saucepan catching fire blight her days, putting it down to bad luck. So how does he explain the presence of the drug Cecilia used on Adrian suddenly appearing in HER blood, and the same bottle showing up in her house? Cecilia is convinced this Adrian’s doing, but he is dead.
Psychologically, Cecilia may have arrived at the conclusion after years of torment, which the script does a good job of convincing the audience might actually be the case. Even when she confronts Adrian’s lawyer brother Tom (Michael Dorman) with her theory, he insists he saw the body and his brother’s ashes in the office with him. Tom reveals that Adrian was controlling toward him too and offers Cecilia a mutual shoulder to lean on.
Impatient horror fans might be waiting for the real scares to come, and the second half of the film obliges and then some, but not without pushing Cecilia to the limit with the mind games. The violence that occurs may be infrequent but is swift and gory, making it all the more effective. The pivotal killing that sees Cecilia locked up exemplifies this, literally coming out of nowhere is a real “Whoa!“ moment but is also quick so don’t blink – handy advice for a lot of the scenes where subtle movement is key.
Depending on how you feel, the first half of the film covering the mental breakdown and slow building psychodrama is the strongest, the freshness of this approach to portraying the invisible antagonist proving to be an deceptively engaging strategy. The second half is more conventional, rewarding genre fans for their patience. Again, the violence isn’t extreme but effective enough, though the unpredictability of the scares from before is now gone, with only an ambiguous (nonsensical?) last minute plot twist being the only part that isn’t paint-by-numbers crowd-pleasing, logic-eschewing fodder.
Character background is thin of the ground in this film, but with this being more about the journey of now than the past, we can live with that, thanks to the chameleon-like turn from Elizabeth Moss. She is at her best when Cecilia is at her lowest, which sounds cruel but isn’t. Moss commits herself to making the mental breakdown as convincing as possible whilst essaying Cecilia’s resilience and late devious foibles with an equal touch of veracity.
Whilst Whanell’s updating of the concept has revitalised it as a horror property, so has the production techniques. For example, the attack scenes weren’t Moss writhing round the floor like she was being beaten; she was fending off an actor in a green suit, who was then digitally removed, resulting in much more realistic action.
Barely recognisable when compared to Wells’ novel, this version of The Invisible Man is a confident, intelligent, and innovative example of how to update a classic property whilst paying homage to its origins. Less is very much more!