In many modern horror movies, things are aggressively didactic. Baddies are bad, heroes are good; audiences – in their perceived inability to assign morality or allegiance to a story on their own – are dumb. This formula can be useful when employed well (as in “Get Out”), but most great horror films teeter on the balance beam of nuance. Enter Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man,” a film whose smarter points, like its antagonist, ultimately blink in and out of existence before standing, dark and disappointing, and clocking you over the head.
The film opens on Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) as she painstakingly leaves her boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in the dead of night. A surveillance nut and mastermind of optics, Adrian has trapped Cecilia in his life using manipulation, security cameras, and a house that makes Fort Knox look like a cardboard box. It is a harrowing, elegantly plotted retreat, where every noise is deafening and each shadow foreboding. Cecilia makes it out and moves in with her friend, James (Aldis Hodge), and his daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). Soon, she learns that Adrian has committed suicide and left her $5 million in a trust to be revoked if she ever faces criminal charges or is deemed mentally incompetent. Cecilia is finally gaining her confidence back until an invisible force begins to taunt her and harm her loved ones. If you’ve read the film’s title, you already know that that invisible force is, most likely, a man – most likely Adrian.
The film has some clever things to say about the psychological aftermath of domestic abuse, and deftly carries these messages through the second act. When she recounts her abuse to her sister (Harriet Dyer) and James, Cecilia mentions that Adrian would control what she wore and what she ate. The invisible antagonist’s first acts, then, are to mess about in her wardrobe and burn her breakfast. The film’s greatest strengths emerge in its many dialogue-less sequences, as Elisabeth Moss is left to communicate abject terror, confusion, and apprehension with just her face. It is a stunning horror performance, solidifying Moss as one of the most expressive actors in the industry. She works perfectly with the camera, helmed by cinematographer Stefan Duscio (“Sweetheart,” “Judy & Punch”), to convey tension. What is she looking at? What might jump out from the corner of the room? Can she really believe her eyes? The score, a screeching sort of Reznor/Ross-meets-“Annihilation” joint by Benjamin Wallfisch (“A Cure for Wellness,” “It”), is expertly traded for silence. In fact, sound is manipulated so well here that you can’t tell when many of the jump scares – a typically artless horror device – are coming.
But once that silence breaks, it turns out that the more these characters talk, the less they have to say. This is hardly a surprise coming from Whannell, the same guy who wrote multiple ‘Saw‘and ‘Insidious‘ films, but it’s still disheartening to see Elisabeth Moss struggle to call a villainous man a “jellyfish” with any sort of bite. Rape and reproductive abuse become hollow plot points to which our female lead has no real emotional connection, and for a film entirely about gaslighting, none of the (many!) men who call Cecilia nuts ever renege on, much less acknowledge, their dismissals. In fact, the audience is compelled to laugh during the scenes where she’s trying, desperately, to be taken seriously. And when the final villain is revealed, his behavior carries such an astonishing lack of nuance that he may as well have been played by Doctor Doom. Abusers aren’t one-dimensionally evil. If they were, everyone would know to stay away from them. Any thorough examination of abuse victims and their relationships would throw these shortcomings into stark relief.
“The Invisible Man” is inarguably well done, and this is one of Elisabeth Moss’s best performances, but this is the kind of subject matter you can’t short-shrift. This is life-altering, traumatizing stuff, but in privileging horror shocks over emotional reality, this film unmasks itself. It’s not as interested in abuse victims as it is cheap thrills. [C+]