The first few months of 2020 sure have been a nightmare, huh? The last two months have done their best to remind us to keep our optimism in check. We’ve shouldered celebrity deaths, volcanic eruptions, Australian bushfires and an international pandemic.
Leave it to the first big-hit horror movie of the year, then, to capitalize on a more insidious failure of society that’s finally receiving the spotlight it rightly deserves.
“The Invisible Man” stars a riveting Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass, a woman forced to confront her abusive ex-boyfriend, optics genius Adrian Griffin, after he fakes his death and returns as an invisible tormentor determined to tear Kass away from everyone she loves.
Moss’s performance is the glue that keeps “The Invisible Man” from falling apart under its own ambition. She commands her time on-screen; impressive, given that for most of it, she’s acting with no one else. In one scene, she talks to an empty doorway and somehow out-performs 95% of other horror movie stars.
The genius of director Leigh Whannell — horror writer for films like “Saw” and “Insidious” — is in the camera. In the immersive spirit of “1917,” he litters the film with long takes. The twist, though, is where the camera decides to linger. Shots pan away from Cecilia unexpectedly or pause in a room after she leaves. The camera is the only “character” that can see Adrian, and it’s chillingly effective at building tension.
But the real triumph of “The Invisible Man” isn’t the style, it’s the substance.
The titular monster is horrifying because it’s one we’ve seen over and over again, in the media and our personal lives.
The #MeToo movement first rose to prominence in 2017 in a cultural explosion that exposed, among other things, the true scope of sexual violence and harassment against women in the United States. Since then, we’ve watched countless men in positions of authority fall from grace as their histories of discrimination and abuse were exposed.
In “The Invisible Man,” Adrian is a master manipulator. With wealth and power on his side, he systematically cuts Cecilia off from everyone she cares about and taunts her with his influence. Then, he turns invisible and redoubles his efforts.
Just like we’ve seen play out in so many recent examples — Kavanaugh, Weinstein, Spacey — doubt is cast on Cecilia’s story and her trauma.
“Listen to me,” she begs her friends, the police. No one does. Not until her abuser threatens their own lives.
The downside to the extended metaphor is that it sometimes loses itself in typical horror tropes. In such a powerful, cautionary tale for our times, it’s disappointing to see the film glorify Adrian’s power for the sake of an eye-catching fight scene, or pull a Scooby-Doo plot-twist in a halfhearted attempt at a “gotcha” moment.
A movie with this kind of message doesn’t need “gotchas,” it needs razor-sharp focus and careful delivery to ensure the point stays clear.
Fortunately, three quarters of “The Invisible Man” is brilliant. Clever camerawork, pulse-quickening sound design and, above all, Moss’s performance will ensure Whannell’s third film a place in the horror hall of fame.
It’s the final quarter that will either leave you pumping your fist or feeling strangely empty.
We shouldn’t need the physical and psychological terrorism of evil men to take the shape of a classic horror movie monster to teach us to listen to women. But “The Invisible Man” makes sure it’s a lesson we won’t soon forget.