Director: Leigh Whannell
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Released: 28th February 2020
Leigh Whannell’s career has certainly been a journey: much renowned for writing and starring in Saw, the witty Australian screenwriter-turned-director went on to work with Blumhouse on some of the most exciting low-budget horror projects out there. His previous endeavour, the criminally-under-seen Upgrade, was one of the most unique, balls-to-the-wall action films of recent years, gleefully combining Cronenbergian body horror and expert fight choreography to an incredibly satisfying result. With his latest foray into the world of horror, Whannell takes on the task of revitalising a classic tale – and does so with sharp expertise in The Invisible Man, a terrifying new take on H.G. Wells’s signature monster that is now deeply rooted in trauma and tangible reality.
Diving head first into the modernist aesthetic, right from the opening Whannell sets the tone for the rest of the film: bass-heavy sounds of breaking waves cover the auditorium with a palpable sense of dread and unease, as we get introduced to the lead, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), a distressed woman on the run from her abusive ex-boyfriend, tech mogul Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). His house – a tech-enhanced maze straight out of Tony Stark’s fantasies – feels like a claustrophobic trap designed to monitor each and every move, which very much reflects Adrien’s gaslighting tendencies. After making her escape and multiple weeks of living at her childhood friend’s house, Cecilia gets the news of Adrian’s suicide – a relief like no other. But even the supposed death can’t stop the abusive psychopath and his torturous antics.
As much a horror film as it is a socially conscious drama, The Invisible Man manages to strike that perfect balance between genuine terror and striking compassion for its lead character. In recent years, trauma has been a prevalent topic for genre cinema (Hereditary and The Lodge seem to be the most obvious examples), but it is rare that we see a horror film that tackles the subject of mental and physical abuse in such a delicate, sensitive manner. When Cecilia confronts and opens up about her history of abuse, it doesn’t just feel like a revelation to the characters she’s talking to – it translates exceptionally well to the horrifying reality of real-world abuse. Even when Adrian is an unseen monster, lurking in his technically advanced suit, there’s a constant sense of omnipresence that fills empty corners and dark corridors, veering further into the depths of mental isolation. It’s not really the suit that makes you shudder in fear but the punishing psychological oppression that comes with the person that wears it – masterful choice on Whannell’s part.
But let’s not fixate too much on the villain, as the film is rightfully much more interested in its female protagonist. Elisabeth Moss steers the ship in The Invisible Man, playing a character that starts off with an erased identity but gradually reclaims her rightful vengeance. In many ways reminiscent of the “final girl” trope from classic horror films, Cecilia finds herself cornered by a monstrous male figure – just this time, that figure has a very human face and sinister human intentions. Moss is terrific in the role, showcasing her incredible range and astute understanding of post-abuse trauma that runs through the film. It’s a very complex performance, full of paranoia, sorrow and quiet pain that culminates with a powerful exhalation.
Amidst all the cold-looking sets and stylish camera tricks straight out of Upgrade, Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man manages to find terror in the most simple aspects. Negative space has never looked scarier, utilised to the absolute horror extremes here, constantly reminding the viewer of the ubiquitous titular entity. But what is the monster that we are so afraid of? He’s a man, whose monstrous actions could lead you down the darkest path of self-doubt, manipulation, and abuse – the true manifestation of horror in its purest form.