By: Chad Clem, Mountaineer News Contributor Posted: March 08, 2020 | 04:49AM EST
“Surprise!” the titular “invisible man” says to his victim when he has her in a particularly vulnerable position. And what a surprise it is to see the film become a hit at the box office this past weekend! The not-quite-a-remake, not-exactly-a-reboot, thriller makes the character and the premise refreshingly scary again, doubling down on nerve-shredding suspense and great performances while using just the right amount of special effects wizardry to sustain its personally affecting story.
Elizabeth Moss (who, basically, carries the whole affair on her shoulders and does so admirably) plays Cecelia, a victim of brutal mental and physical abuse at the hands of Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House), her narcissistic, sociopathic boyfriend and leading tech entrepreneur in optics research, whose clutches she escapes from early in the film. Two weeks later, living in the house of a friend who happens to be policeman (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid), she finds out that not only is Adrian dead—an apparent suicide—but that he has given her $5 million on the condition that she maintain mental competency and not commit a crime. Finally, thinking that she is able to turn a new leaf, suspicious, unexplainable events lead her to believe that somehow Adrian is alive and, equipped with a newfound ability to turn himself seemingly invisible, terrorizing her in creative and sadistic ways. However, since most of the people around her still believe that Adrian is dead, many of Cecelia’s claims fall on deaf ears.
This is where The Invisible Man really gets going. Helmed by Leigh Whannell (the Saw and Insidious series’, and, most recently, the surprisingly trashy-good techno-thriller Upgrade), the film contains some seriously good camera work and scene choreography that elevate the film’s sense of utter paranoia. Where in lesser hands this could have been a simple stalker thriller, Whannell decides to focus on the intimacy and human trauma of the story. Whannell either stays closely in Cecelia’s point-of-view, ensuring that Moss is never out of frame for too long, or at a cold voyeuristic distance—from the next room over or in a hallway, panning back and forth, impatiently, as if searching the empty space for someone who is hiding in plain sight.
The biggest surprise the film offers is its potent sense of paranoia, the perspective of a woman who is a victim of terrible abuses, yet, despite her best efforts to speak about her trauma rationally, no one believes her. This feels particularly resonant in a cultural climate at the climax of # MeToo with Harvey Weinstein’s recent conviction, in which women risked their careers and dignity in the pursuit of justice and were ignored for years. In much the same way that Jordan Peele’s Get Out provided mainstream (read: white) audiences a small taste of the experience of being “othered,” of the constant feeling that one doesn’t belong, the feeling of being possessed like a piece of jewelry or a fancy car, so too does The Invisible Man provide similar audiences (men) with the abject desperation of a woman imprisoned by a world that sees her trauma but does little to nothing to stop it.
In this since, the title, The Invisible Man takes on a new resonance, as other characters see only the victim and the result of abuse but can’t seem to hold accountable the man responsible for it. It’s a shrug, a pitied, almost condescending, glance that mirrors the reaction too many victims receive when they ask for help: “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.” Or worse, the victim herself gets blamed, as happens to Cecelia time and time again throughout the film, when others, unable to understand her perspective (“my boyfriend is invisible and stalking me”), accuse her of Adrian’s actions, including assault and murder.
This leads to scenes where Cecelia, can barely contain herself. Audiences feel Cecelia’s frustration, can see the panic in her eyes, the disgust she feels at herself as she realizes that what she is saying sounds crazy. But we, as an audience are put into a position to believe her and, therefore, share her weariness and desperation to make someone, anyone, hear her. It’s potent stuff.
The Invisible Man does what other effective horror films do well: use the source of fear as a metaphor for more universally relatable aspects of life. Just as The Invisible Man represents the trauma of abuse victims and, residually, those closest to them, it could just as easily be seen as a representation of the fear and isolation one feels in a world where the current trends in political culture leave them alienated from those closest to them. In the vein of similar paranoid thrillers such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which resonate in particularly polarized times, The Invisible Man shares the existential feeling of those who know that something is terribly wrong but lack the proper evidence (i.e. “fake news”) to convince them otherwise. The fact that Adrian is characterized as “a sociopathic narcissist” almost makes this reading of the film too on the nose.
This is a horror film for our times, and one that shows how a century old premise can still be mined for cultural relevance in the right hands. If only all remakes were this much of a surprise...
Chad Clem was born and raised in Buckhannon, WV and is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College. He currently lives and teaches in Roanoke, VA