The Invisible Man directed by Leigh Whannell, Blumhouse Productions, 2020
Reviewed by Stephen Theaker
It was not so very long ago that many boys and men, when asked to choose a superpower, would without any hint of shame pick invisibility, with the express purpose of denying women and girls the right to privacy and dignity. The last big adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man in 2000, leant heavily into this aspect, Kevin Bacon playing a voyeur and a rapist.
This time the invisible man is not naked as he goes about his business and he is not, so far as we can tell, a voyeur. He doesn’t sexually assault his victim in the course of the film, though it’s established that he has in the past. This is instead a story about coercive control, illustrating how women trapped in such abusive relationships can be driven to actions that seem utterly irrational to society at large.
The film begins with Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) trying to escape from her own home. She has drugged her partner, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and in an excruciatingly tense sequence she tries to leave without rousing him. Subsequently hiding at the house of her sister’s police officer boyfriend (Aldis Hodge), she struggles to feel safe, even after hearing the news that her ex has taken his own life.
An invisible person then begins to mess with her, the film adopting some of the tools of the Paranormal Activity series. The camera shows us scenes where nothing is happening, but we know something could happen at any time. We’re frightened by what it might be, but we don’t want to miss it when it does. So we scan the screen with the nervousness of our ancestors looking out of the cave at night. It’s as effective here as it was in Paranormal Activity and its sequels.
Elisabeth Moss is superb in the role of Cecilia. Like Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead, she is portraying a character pushed by the fantastical beyond what any human being should be expected to tolerate, and does it exceptionally well. It’s a story that could potentially have felt luridly over-the-top, like a glossy nineties thriller, but her performance keeps it grounded and believable.
Curiously, for a horror film, I don’t think anyone ever suggests the possibility that Cecilia is being haunted by her dead spouse. Nor do they seem to be aware of any other films starring the invisible man, nor of work being done on stealth suits, nor are they particularly suspicious of the brother-in-law who will presumably inherit everything if Cecilia loses her mind. But these are minor issues.
Some viewers may prefer the horror of the first half to the thriller it tends to be in the second half, but both parts are very well done. Film and television villains are sometimes quite restrained, but here we have one who, like the real men we can read about in the judgments of the Family Courts, will stop at nothing to get what he wants, to enforce his will. It makes for a chilling film, and perhaps even an important one. Four stars.