In a film whose title gently mocks the name of this review series, Cecilia Kass tries to escape her abusive, controlling, optics-tech genius boyfriend Adrian Griffin. Despite being helped by her sister Emily, her childhood friend—now a cop—James, and learning of Griffin’s apparent suicide, Cecilia (C for short) doesn’t get very far before being subjected to an insanely torturous version of Peekaboo.
At last we have an answer to the age-old conundrum of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object, at least for one particular scenario: if that force happens to be Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, and the object is a 2020 audience jaded into apathetic immobility by anemic fare like The Grudge, The Turning, Fantasy Island, and Brahms: The Boy II, what happens is that the audience feels a gut punch of dread, excitement and ultimately cathartic release. This is the kind of smart, excellently crafted horror thriller that reawakens one to the possibilities of genre film-making. Watch it--and make sure the seats around you are occupied, just for good measure.
Whannell performed double duty as writer and director on this beauty. Upgrade represented a clear progression from his directorial debut, and this in turn marks another significant step up. Over the course of three movies as a director, Whannell has achieved fine control of technique indeed, a level of proficiency that eludes other Hollywood pros with filmographies twice as long. The film’s main title sequence is remarkably simple and effective, setting the tone for everything that follows. Waves crash against a rock face, and words formed from water beads hover in the air intermittently between each surge, here one instant, gone the next. Were they ever really there? Perception is a fickle thing. With this declaration of aesthetics firmly embedded in, and purely in the service of, his story, Whanell reassures us that we are in the hands of a confident storyteller from the get-go. The film’s plot benefits immensely from a script that has thought through the implications of its premise, and Whannell has devised ingenious ways of wringing every droplet of adrenaline and emotion from us along the way.
His experience as a writer, with a dozen or so feature credits, shows. The movie’s taut script maximizes the characters’ psychological dilemmas—how can C maintain her self-confidence when it seems impossible to prove to those around her that she isn’t insane, or lying? what is ultimately driving Adrian’s sick behavior?, and so on—even as it pitches them into old-school, animalistic struggles for survival that are viscerally engaging. In terms of directing, Whannell establishes a compelling vocabulary that simultaneously grounds us and ratchets up the terror in apparently quotidian situations. A series of slow lateral pans to no-one and nothing, combined with measured wide frames, stir unease; later, gravity-bending point-of-view shots, as when C faints, or a security guard is rendered unconscious, put us squarely into an experience we’re trying desperately to avoid, while still rewarding us with style.
Top talent in front and behind the cameras rallies around Whannell’s vision. I can’t say enough good things about Elisabeth Moss’s performance as Cecilia Kass—this is a tour-de-force. In certain indelible scenes, as for example during her first meeting with Adrian’s brother Tom (Michael Dorman), she manages to convey absolute conviction, desperation, and profound self-doubt all at the same time. She also makes a really canny choice that further draws us into her experience: as events escalate, rather than exploding into histrionics, she becomes progressively more muted and internal. Part of it is the drugs, sure; part of it is her knowing that only by retreating into her innermost self does she have a chance of coming out of this alive. She starts giving zero fucks about communicating the living hell she’s living through to an outside world that disbelieves her anyway, and channels all her energy into raw survival. The supporting cast is all solid too, and though Oliver Jackson-Cohen doesn’t have much screen time to personify the demon we’ve come to know through his actions, he summons just the right amount of scummy charm wrapped around psychotic mania to fit the bill.
Stefan Duscio’s cinematography and color scheme help elegantly illuminate C’s psychic states. Given its architecture, we would expect Adrian’s estate to be flooded with warm, natural light and to be framed by rich oceanic blues. Instead, everything appears drab and grey and washed out, reflecting C’s experience as someone stultified and fighting for a shred of agency. Later, in the stark surroundings of interrogation rooms and security holding cells, lights become fluorescent bright, and we know an inner spark has been lit. Benjamin Wallfisch, one of my favorite “recent” composers (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation, It, It: Chapter Two, Blade Runner 2049, Shazam!, among others) has here crafted another master class in shock and pathos. Tracks like “Escape”, “He’s Gone” and “Attack” unleash sonic fury, a perfect blend of massive, distorted, clanging synth chords atop pulsing, almost-glottal beats, with a maelstrom of highly texturized strings pizzicato-ing around the fray; notes stretch and snap into blizzards of bass-furious cacophony, dragging us into a stomach-churning frenzy of empathy with, and identification for, C’s plight. Other cues, like “It’s All a Lie” and “Denouement”, rely on simpler arrangements, often enhanced by lovely piano progressions, soulful melodies that haunt and affect.
All these elements cohere for an experience not only supremely visible, but at times even seemingly palpable.
Why do the inventors of invisibility often end up being such creeps? I think this current re-imagining of H. G. Wells’ landmark novel makes the most powerful argument yet that this line of thinking inverts cause and effect: first, they are creeps, and it is a result of this that they develop the means to become peeping toms running around in self-appointed cloaks of impunity.
C describes Adrian as a narcissistic sociopath; a charitable description, as it turns out. His ocean-facing estate, with its beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows offering sumptuously expansive views of the cliffs and waves beyond, appears to be a paean to transparency. Look more closely. The rolling lawns are enclosed by an imposing wall. The lack of doors between rooms curtails privacy. Standing anywhere in the bedroom, one can glimpse almost anywhere else on the upper floor; numerous security cameras fill in the gaps. The building’s openness is a cage, and its invisible bars spell out Adrian’s underlying design philosophy: The more I see, the more I control. Freud didn’t publish his work on “The Ego and the Id” until 1923, but Wells’ 1897 tale of an obsessive genius who transforms himself into a nearly invincible, fastidiously voyeuristic criminal—a magic trick of pure ego giving way to unrestrained id by casting off the super-ego of visibility—sort of got there first. This movie channels the spirit of Wells’ work, honoring the darkness of the master storyteller’s vision while refreshing the details. Speaking of originals, there’s an excellent nod to the seminal James Whale 1933 adaptation starring Claude Rains, when C glimpses a man on a hospital gurney completely wrapped up in bandages. This isn’t simply an allusion though, as it disquietingly suggests that Rain’s Dr. Jack Griffin was clad in bandages not just for convenience, but because, on a subliminal level, he was a severely wounded man.
This version also shows that one may stay close to the source while inverting terms. “I want to be left alone—and undisturbed,” Rains said in the original movie version. Adrian here wants the exact opposite; to never be alone. “When you think about it, the man has the perfect profile. He was invisible before he was invisible” defines an important moment of insight in John Carpenter’s 1992 modernization based on a Wells-adjacent novel. Another inversion here, since Adrian starts off as a world-renowned figure. He must see himself as being in control of C in order to feel real, and doesn’t care at all how the world perceives him, because in his mind the entirety of the world has been reduced to himself. C’s epiphany is that she can’t run away from Adrian, because retreat only excites him further. When she exclaims “I see you!” it as though she is instinctually anticipating her own epiphany. In order to defeat him, she exploits his blind spot, refashioning herself into his imagined version of her. Adrian’s vanity makes the real C invisible, and only in this way can she turn the tables and become truly seen, if just for an instant: “Surprise.”
A closing thought. C tells Tom that he’s the jellyfish version of Adrian, because he lacks a spine. How ironically apposite, given that jellyfish are so transparent.