Film reviews and more since 2009

The Invisible Man (2020) review

Dir. Leigh Whannell

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★★

If you’re going to dust off an age-old property — or any property you’re looking to remake — this is how you make it shine. One of the many superb elements of The Invisible Man is you can view it through multiple lenses. It’s effective as a surface-level work of horror/mystery and doubles as an unnerving look at the lingering effects of traumatic experiences and gaslighting. Moreover: it finally allows the great Elisabeth Moss a wider audience that will hopefully grant her the mainstream recognition she deserves.

It was Charles Bukowski who opened his first novel Post Office with the memorable line “it began as a mistake.” That’s pretty accurate when it comes to describing how we got a film as strong as Leigh Whannell’s modernized adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel, which was famously made into the 1933 Universal monster flick starring Claude Rains. Several years back, Universal was hellbent on utilizing many of their classic monsters (Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera, etc) in remakes as a part of an interconnected cinematic universe known as the “Dark Universe.” It was supposed to begin in 2014 with Dracula Untold, but formally kicked off with the Tom Cruise film The Mummy in 2017, which was chided by critics and flopped only because of its gaudy budget. Consequently, many of the aforementioned projects were put on pause, but with the success of Whannell’s cyberpunk thriller Upgrade, Universal decided to entrust the 43-year-old Australian filmmaker with a small-budgeted adaptation of The Invisible Man.

Indeed, it began as a mistake and subsequently turned into a triumph. The Invisible Man is quite possibly the most creative and impressive horror film since Get Out, but hyperbole be damned, at least for the meantime. The film follows Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who, in the opening scene, narrowly flees the home of Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Haunting of Hill House), her rich, abusive boyfriend. She shacks up with her childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge, Straight Outta Compton) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid, A Wrinkle in Time), where her agoraphobic tendencies and swirling paranoia disturb her everyday life. Cecilia’s convinced she won’t be able to rebuild her life until Adrian is completely out of the picture.

Soon enough, he seemingly is. Cecilia’s sister (Harriet Dyer) shows up at James’ home and informs her sister that Adrian committed suicide. A later meeting with Adrian’s lawyer brother (Michael Dorman) finds Cecilia left with incredible wealth from her ex’s estate. What should provide comfort provides nothing but added paranoia when Cecilia can’t help but feel she’s being watched and further manipulated by Adrian. A brilliant yet narcissistic scientist, Adrian has ostensibly found a way to make himself invisible, and stalks Cecilia by alienating her small support system of friends and making herself appear unstable with the police.

From the jump, Whannell isn’t interested in fan service nor world-building for a half-dozen films down the line, which may never come to fruition (sidenote: the film isn’t explicitly part of Universal’s failed “Dark Universe”). A thoughtful screenwriter, Whannell strips down the premise to its fundamentals, which is the truly disturbing idea of an invisible person lurking among us. Furthermore, he plays on the idea to provide the film’s ultimate fright: the very thought that someone could be making your life hell with no consequences, robbing the benefit of the doubt from peers given the perceived impossibility of there being an invisible person.

Cinematographer Stefan Duscio — who, too, worked on Upgrade — does wonders with the framework of the picture to make the titular concept effective. He employs a tricky brand of visual language that loans itself to many wideshots of spacious interiors that encourage our eyes to wander around the frame, looking for clues. Many horror films employ close-ups in this department, so we can’t miss the curtains wafting or an object jostled by unexplainable forces. Duscio’s camerawork demands we be active viewers, and there’s a good chance you might miss some of the visual subtleties that lurk in the shadows. The result is profoundly effective on the level of setting a mood, such as a scene when Cecilia is cooking breakfast, and raising the intensity in a moment’s notice, such as the restaurant sequence, which will be among the movie’s most memorable in time.

At the center of the madness — somewhat unsurprisingly, if you’ve been paying any attention to her body of work — is Elisabeth Moss, a tremendous talent who should finally get the adoration she has deserved for quite sometime. Moss has the rare skill of playing distressed and unstable characters with conviction as opposed to theatrics. She showed it in Queen of Earth, where she was a listless woman practically watching her reality crumble around her, and again in Her Smell, where she played an egomaniacal rock-star in freefall. Moss brings a deft physicality to her roles that’s liable to be overlooked, but it’s propelled to the forefront when she’s forcibly dragged across hospital floors, by cops and her stalker, or again in the opening scene when she’s navigating Adrian’s mansion, which is so rigged and convoluted it recalls the now-famous home in Parasite. If anyone can sport the look of a disheveled soul with clammy skin and blotchy eye shadow along with an unmistakable prowess for not overplaying roles in inherently disturbing setups, it’s Moss.

The Invisible Man can simply be appreciated as a fundamentally sound fright-fest, but where it dazzles is how it looks at the all-too consuming nature of abusive relationships. Even when Adrian is out of the picture, Cecilia still feels vulnerable and unsafe. Her opportunities at betterment seem within reach, but persistent gaslighting and emotional manipulation have made her a shell of the person she once was. The window to empathy for the cruelly abused in these situations is clear in Whannell’s film, and loans it a deeper purpose we as viewers sadly don’t see often.

With the abundance of feeble horror films and lazy retreads disguised as cutting edge reboots (The GrudgeJigsaw to name very few), it’s about time we get a film as intense as The Invisible Man, but also one as artfully conceived.

NOTE: The Invisible Man is now streaming on Peacock.

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman, Harriet Dyer, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen. Directed by: Leigh Whannell.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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