Fittingly, Leigh Whannell‘s The Invisible Man is both about what can and cannot be seen. On the face of Cecelia (Elisabeth Moss) is written out the trauma of living under the hand of an abusive man. In the corners of the room lurk his unseen presence – either literally or figuratively – hanging over her life without him, refusing to let her go completely. In both James Whale‘s original take on H.G. Wells‘s The Invisible Man and Paul Verhoeven‘s twist with Hollow Man, the scientist going for invisibility is punished for playing God. Verhoeven took it the furthest, showing an average-but-brilliant man corrupted, turned into a demon via the power he so badly craved. Whannell takes this and jumps off from it, suppositioning that it is a demon who would crave the power of God, not a scientist simply with his head in the clouds of imagination. That is precisely what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is, a demon out to control the soul of Cecelia and cause destruction in her life, trying to drain her of life and control the only woman he knows does not actually need him.
Whannell is a natural fit for the material, building from where he left off in Upgrade as he shows the dangers of technology. This is the new age “fear of the unknown”, an uncertainty about what man is capable of when playing God that Whannell feeds off of so well. It is perhaps no mistake that both the villain in Upgrade and Adrian in The Invisible Man are men who run tech companies on the cutting edge of innovation, a direct hit at the Silicon Valley men who are more concerned with what they can do than whether or not they should. Of course, this film shows that Adrian is not ignorant or indifferent to what is right and wrong, but rather completely aware. Adrian is a wicked man, one looking to exert as much control as he possibly can. This technology does not suddenly go awry or change him. Rather, he builds it because it affords him the chance to be an overwhelming force, even if unseen.
Feeding off of this, cinematography is exceptional in how it utilizes that uncertainty. Whannell never really sugarcoats what is going on. The tense and thrilling escape by Cecelia in the middle of the night reveals not just her own terror, but the breadcrumbs of Adrian’s wicked use of his technological knowledge. Security systems, cameras, and high-tech walls, all designed to keep Cecelia locked within. By the time he uses invisibility to haunt her – another thing Whannell clues the audience into immediately, rarely making us sure as to whether Cecelia is right or wrong on where he is standing – the film plays off that fear of the unknown so well. As DP Stefan Duscio shoots Cecelia in a medium shot, the camera pans to the right to the corner of the room and then back again. The viewer’s eyes dart around, scanning to see if there are any signs of Adrian in that corner. Point-of-view shots from Cecelia’s perspective do the same, staring in the corner of a room with absolute certainty but little shreds of doubt as to whether Adrian is standing there, watching. Whannell’s overall usage of the mise en scene and the cinematography to build tension adds considerably to The Invisible Man with every bump, every impression, and object possibly set to indicate that Adrian is there. A steady medium shot of a stove or one of Cecelia calling out to him in the kitchen, a tight close-up as she breathes in the cold, or a door slowly opening. Is it him there? Or was it just a bump? The Invisible Man is a film that feeds off of visual tension with every movement possibly a threat just biding his time to act.
The score further adds to this with composer Benjamin Wallfisch using some typical horror film notes to build tension, but really excelling in when he overdoes the music. The suffocating, oppressive sounds that accompany a close-up of a screaming Cecelia capture her mental state so well. Likewise, the abject lack of sound is a terrific tool for Whannell, building tension as the viewer listens intently for any noise in the background, often tracking behind Cecelia or in close-up as she scans around herself for any sign of Adrian. In that regard, Moss herself is a phenomenal asset. She turns in a brilliant performance, wearing the pain and confusion Cecelia feels on her face. The agony, stress, and terror of living under this weight is felt in her every action. As she slowly begins to believe she will never be rid of him, the defeat and the suffocating isolation of her plight – as nobody believes her – is heart-wrenchingly and terrifyingly presented by Moss. She is in a helpless position, forced to fend for herself in a world that discounts what she is experiencing. As she works through the problems she faces, Whannell’s juxtaposition of a devastated close-up of Cecelia in the restaurant scene after a moment of shocking violence with the look of relief on her face at the end after similar violence sums up the themes quite nicely. Whether Adrian was there or not, he was an oppressive weight on her life that granted her no peace that he could not try to steal away. It is only by being rid of him that she can truly exist without the nagging feeling that he could come back or that he could be in the corner of the room, just watching her. One can see the weight off her shoulders, a credit to Moss’s rich and carefully executed performance.
Whannell’s builds on this story, Moss’s performance, and the technological themes with a twist of Gaslight. The portrayal of an abusive relationship is a tender subject, one that Whannell treats with absolute respect and treads carefully with but he excels in giving Moss the room to explore the mental toll it takes. The determination in her eyes as she tries to convince people, the pain as she experiences the physical abuse Adrian doles out, the mental anguish as he threatens her, and the doubt as his lying/manipulation nearly convinces her she has it all wrong. Picking up as she has finally managed to make her escape, Cecelia does not need to be convinced that Adrian is wicked but rather she must chisel away at the facade he had built up with others. He is not the man they think he is and, as a very powerful man, it is hard to convince people that he is a monster. Even her friends, like James (Aldis Hodge), become skeptical as events transpire and Adrian seems to have him hands clean of any abuses. This is likely to be a very difficult film for survivors of domestic violence, but it is sure to be an empowering one as well. Cecelia is not some damsel in distress being rescued by any man. Instead, every man in her life or in its peripheral winds up falling victim to Adrian’s desperate attempts to cling onto her. It comes down to her and him with Cecelia possessing all of the power to rescue herself from this living hell. Amid the #MeToo movement of women exposing their abusers and finally reclaiming the voice that their abuser and society had stripped from them, Cecelia is a perfect heroine for the present as she does both and never backs down in the face of societal pressure.
The Invisible Man is a horrifying and pulse-pounding adaptation of H.G. Wells’s classic story of playing God and the costs that brings. Layering on an examination of domestic abuse as well as critiquing the unknown terror that new technology can unleash, Leigh Whannell’s take not only utilizes some of Wells’s original themes but freshens them up in thoughtful, smart, and well-executed ways. Terrific cinematography and sound design add to the film, as does Elisabeth Moss’s mesmerizing lead performance. It is a raw and challenging role, one that Moss rises to consistently as she captures the fraying at the edge of Cecelia’s soul, her pain and her anguish, but also her strength and determination to finally be free. While its terror may come from the fear of the unknown and whether or not the invisible man is lurking in the corner, the film’s adeptness in still being terrifying when he is briefly visible is a credit to Whannell’s overall film. It is one built on atmosphere from the silence of a room to the pounding of rain outside to the smart pacing that never rushes to a scare, but rather slowly builds the mood to a fever pitch. Whether appearing as a footprint, a glimpse, or an outline or off-screen entirely, the menacing and harrowing nature of the threat before her is enough to send chills down one’s spine. The Invisible Man is one of the rare modern remakes that not only stacks up to the original, but may eclipse it, delivering a genuinely scary, smart, and artistically strong experience.