Moss’ performance causes The Invisible Man to leave an indelible impression.
Unseen threats make for one of the most unnerving forms of horror and suspense, and Universal’s reboot of The Invisible Man offers that in spades, taking the premise of H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi novel and adapting it to include the frightening potential for abuse of sophisticated modern technology. In a world where facial recognition software threatens to end privacy as we know it, and where the rise of deepfakes means that we must increasingly doubt what we see with our own eyes, sociopathic elites using technology for absurdly sinister ends seems more like an inevitability than a premise for science fiction.
That’s not to say Leigh Whannell’s modern take on iconic invisibility passes the plausibility test. There’s enough here that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny to require a hearty helping of suspension of disbelief in keeping with most genre exercises, and The Invisible Man rarely rises above glorified exploitation. But it’s so goddamn suspenseful and gleefully indulgent in its genre excesses that it’s difficult to care. Carried by a dynamic performance from Elisabeth Moss as the film’s physically abused and psychologically tortured hero, Cecilia, and punctuated with starkly menacing sound editing, the film transcends its many tropes to provide hair-raising cinematic suspense that doesn’t just make Cecilia’s mind play tricks on her, but just might compel the audience’s to as well.
Wasting no time getting to the goods, the film opens with Cecilia delicately lifting her sleeping partner’s hand from around her stomach as she slinks out of bed in his palatial seaside home. Forced to drug him and deactivate numerous security alarms just to escape the fortress, she barely makes it to her sister Alice’s (Harriet Dyer) vehicle before her impossibly controlling lover, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), is punching through the passenger-side window in a desperate rage. Unsurprisingly, Adrian isn’t seen a whole lot from this point on.
Cecilia holes up with Alice’s cop friend, James (Aldis Hodge), and his college-bound daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid), who provide much of the film’s heart. Though she still lacks self-agency, traumatized to the point of barely being able to step out as far as the mailbox after two weeks in hiding with her affable hosts, Cecilia regains some semblance of good humor during her stay—until the creepy shit starts.
When Adrian apparently turns up dead of suicide, Cecilia learns from Adrian’s slimy brother Tom (Michael Dorman) that her abuser has left her five million dollars on the condition that she stays out of trouble with the law, a technicality that becomes increasingly problematic as Cecilia is convinced that Adrian, a genius in the field of optics, has somehow discovered a way to make himself invisible and is now taunting her at every turn. From there, the whole thing spirals into an almost intolerably tense series of mind games and ultraviolent mayhem.
Given its genre excesses, The Invisible Man surprisingly shows restraint in a few key areas. The setup would seem to allow for an obvious is-it-real-or-is-it-all-in-her-mind dynamic, but Whannell’s film sidesteps this potential by first showing us a butcher knife plucked from a counter and a stovetop burner turning itself up to an incendiary level. On the surface, this may seem like a missed opportunity to inject some tension-inducing uncertainty into the situation, but instead, this bit of dramatic irony turns the screws on Cecilia’s increasingly hideous predicament, as we know from the outset that she’s not crazy, despite her inevitable incarceration in a mental institution. Instead of wondering whether or not Cecilia’s gone crackers, we’re left aligned with her in wondering just where exactly in the room the invisible Adrian might be. It’s wildly effective.
Despite its crisp cinematography and fierce sound editing, The Invisible Man wouldn’t succeed as much as it does without Moss’ captivating performance as a woman driven to near-insanity by her unseen tormenter. Yes, it’s genre as all hell and maybe even a bit cruel. But this is Toni Collette in Hereditary level stuff, and even when the film goes a bit too Gone Girl for its own good, Moss’ performance alone causes The Invisible Man to leave an indelible impression.