The unknown is the ultimate fear for many. That is until something like Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” comes along to suggest true horror lies in the unseen familiar.
In the case of Elizabeth Moss’ Cecilia Kass, this entails an abusive husband terrorizing her from beyond the grave. Even without physical evidence of Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the lingering trauma he caused still holds Cecilia hostage. The film’s conceit allegorically demonstrates that trauma is its own unwanted child, borne out of repeated abuse with no clear end in sight. Even when family and friends intervene to end the suffering, the intimate nature of the harm, defilement, and dehumanization inflicted is a stain that may never disappear. Whannell metastasizes this stain into a seemingly supernatural monster, one who is far more menacing than the H.G. Wells social pariah that inspired him.
Fleeing in the dead of night from her Hitchcockian cliffside estate overlooking the San Francisco Bay, Cecilia nearly makes it to her sister Emily’s (Harriet Dyer) getaway car unharmed. However, once she closes the passenger door, Adrian races towards the vehicle like an incoming missile. Despite breaking the car window and almost prying Cecilia back into his evil clutches, the sisters’ escape prevails. The opening sequence elicits more visceral anxiety than any prison breakout, with Moss oozing palpable fear in every careful move Cecilia makes toward freedom.
It’s regrettable that Moss’ performance is undercut by the weak characterization that defines Cecilia solely by the emotional and physical anguish Adrian causes. If the tragedy is that audiences don’t get to know Cecilia because she’s lost herself to this overbearing sociopath, then the script should ruminate on this somber reality rather than resort to predictable poltergeist torture and hollow revenge tropes.
Cecilia then remains in the domestic care of her childhood friend, James (Aldis Hodge), and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid, fantastic at elevating the intensity of every scene she’s in). Agonizing over Adrian’s potential reappearance, Cecilia’s worries abate when her sister visits with the news that the wealthy optics physicist has committed suicide. Even more alarming: Adrian left instructions in his will – presented to Cecilia by Adrian’s slick and slimy lawyer brother, Tom (Michael Dorman) – to bestow $5 million to his understandably resentful widow. The only caveat: the funds will cease monthly installment roll out if Cecilia commits a crime. Though Adrian may be invisible, Whannell’s foreshadowing is glaringly transparent, as are his twists which contain less ambiguous ingenuity than he perceives.
It almost can’t be helped that once the Invisible Man is figuratively unmasked, the proceedings run stale instead of enthralling. The story goes on for one or two final confrontations too many, so elaborate in coming to its provocative ending that Adrian’s rampage goes from invisible intimidation to elastic ennui. When it comes to subtle background movement that the audience is privy to while the protagonist initially remains oblivious, undervalued horror movies like “The Strangers” accomplish this feat much better. The issue with “The Invisible Man” is that it’s caught up in an artistic battle between auteur vision and studio impatience. The latter wins out in the end since the plot minimizes the visual impact of Stefan Duscio’s cinematography. His slow tracking shots parallel the speed at which Adrian trickles into view.
Faulty internal logic and implausibility run rampant the more Whannell aggrandizes his narrative. Once viewers begin to realize how far-fetched the different character connections and motivations are in conjunction with their respective action segments, commercial hellfire has already rained its mighty, unstoppable storm. Forget about piecing together an improbable plot puzzle; just surrender to the fact that Universal is resurrecting its former “Classic Monsters” property under the guise of a character study that magnifies domestic violence. “The Invisible Man” unfortunately doesn’t go far enough to state just how irreparable this lasting damage can be. Although Cecilia reflects on her gaslighting experience, it’s not the unifying theme of discourse that early indication promised it would be.