The first scene of this film is masterful. It depicts with clinical terror the escape from an abusive relationship amplified to an extent that’s nearly unbearable to watch. There’s dread in every second of the silent sequence as director Leigh Whannell utilizes negative space to amplify fear of what lurks around the corner. It’s a promise of a smarter, more important film than what follows.
Cecilia has escaped. Adrian, the man in question, spent years isolating her inside his mammoth estate, controlling every aspect of her life. The implication is this abuse went from mental to physical and sexual. Weeks later, Cecilia receives a letter informing her of Adrian having taken his own life. Despite their relationship, his will dictates that she be left five million dollars handed out over a period of four years. Finally, it seems, the nightmare is over. But Cecilia can’t let go of the sensation that something is still wrong, like someone was following her every move. As if someone was in the same room with her even when she couldn’t see them.
As an update, this is the best and smartest way to go about this material. For women in an abusive relationship, it’s leaving that is the most dangerous time of all. Using the story of The Invisible Man as a foundation for the abuse we as outsiders don’t see, and the trauma that it leaves behind is a terrific idea. It allows for a film to communicate actual real world issues while concealing them underneath a pulpy veneer.
But what about when the film relies on tropes so heavily that it overshadows everything else? Because THE INVISIBLE MAN (written by Whannell) does just that. It relies on the characters, especially its leading lady, to act in a fashion so idiotic it borders on fantasy. We need to accept this because otherwise the story couldn’t continue, and to an extent that’s fine. The film even attempts to gaslight the audience by focusing on empty rooms and hallways in hopes that we too will start to question our sanity. If only the heavy handed music wouldn’t give away the arrival of the villain. For once, this is a film that would be better without a soundtrack.
The most important part of the films comes from the insistence that no matter how incoherent the victim, it is important to hear them out to understand their distress. This, thankfully, shines through underneath everything else.
I really wanted to like this film. I’m a sucker for horror where reality is taken out of our control, and it feels like the world is turning off its axis. The Kafkaesque elements of that are familiar to anyone who has suffered from depression or anxiety. At its heart, THE INVISIBLE MAN truly feels like it’s trying to aim for that, without succeeding. The pieces are all there, but they never connect in a way that could be defined. Is it satire? A comedy? A thriller? I couldn’t say, because the film doesn’t seem to know either.
None of this is the fault of Elizabeth Moss, who carries the film with grace in a show stopping performance. It’s because THE INVISIBLE MAN tries to have things both ways. It wants to be a #MeToo film, complete with the social message that is mostly on point, just as it wants to be a popcorn thrill-ride along with all the baggage that those come with. So the film settles for jump scares and a CGI-heavy ending with a message that is… complicated, to say the least.
It doesn’t help the film is littered with plot holes and contrivances. These range from the typical (nobody turns on the lights) to the patently absurd (a house is raided and nobody checks the closet). In one of the most egregiously dumb moments, our heroine finds evidence that would provide vindication in the form of an item that is both easily carried and entirely possible to photograph. She’s even holding a smartphone. What does she do? She hides it in a closet, doesn’t take any pictures of it, and later refers to it in half-sentences that barely make sense even to the audience who saw what happened.
It’s this kind of lazy writing that bogs down the entire film. It wants to be an analogy about women not being believed no matter how right they are. But making the lead character incompetent and (ugh) hysteric undermines that entire point. If we know that Cecilia is causing these situations to herself, it means that we’re only on her side because we know the other option is a psycho in an invisibility suit.
It also requires that everyone else in the film acts like idiots too, no matter their gender. Cecilia’s sister and best friend immediately cuts off all ties after a nasty email sent in her name shows up. Despite just hearing that Cecilia’s abusive ex would routinely pull things like that. Another person is punched by the invisible man (emphasis mine), and their first reaction is to blame Cecilia. Not to wonder how she reached across the room from a weird angle with the force of an adult male.
Ultimately the film leans heavily into satire in a scene where the invisible villain begins to take down multiple people at once, and each time the ones left standing shout at Cecilia to stop what she’s doing. It’s presented with a straight face, but it has to be intentionally absurd. I’m not certain, since Paul Verhoeven Leigh Whannell is not, and there’s no indication elsewhere that this was the case. But the other alternative is so ridiculous, I have to believe otherwise.
As with many things in the film, the intention is clear, but the execution is childish.