It’s often said that clearly showing the monster in a horror movie makes it less frightening, because the audience’s imagination will conjure up something scarier than whatever can be shown onscreen. The struggle is altogether different when a film can’t show its monster, which makes any version of H.G. Wells’ classic novel The Invisible Man a challenge for a filmmaker. Writer-director Leigh Whannell is a master of crafting scares, and he knows how to create a truly terrifying enemy when he can only show a lack of one. But he seems more interested in the mechanics of torture than in giving the very real emotional framework of abuse its due.
The Invisible Man asks what happens when a super-intelligent Iron Man-esque inventor is abusive and manipulative. The protagonist, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), is being controlled by her husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), an inventor who specializes in optics. After a terse prison-break-esque escape from their compound-like mansion, she hides out with her friend James (Aldis Hodge) and tries to return to a normal life. When she learns Adrian has killed himself, she can’t shake the feeling that he might still be nearby, just out of sight. Protecting herself from a rich tech genius is difficult enough, but protecting herself from someone she can’t even see is next to impossible.
Portraying an invisible man in a visual medium presents an interesting challenge, and Whannell doesn’t shy away from it. POV stalking shots seem like a natural workaround, with the camera hovering around Cecilia as she remains unaware of the eyes on her. But instead, Whannell offers long, still shots of seemingly empty rooms and corners, so loaded with anticipation that they become some of the movie’s most entrancing moments.
In one particularly memorable scene, Cecilia prepares breakfast while James chats with her from offscreen. That’s unusual framing for a film, designed to leave the audience uncomfortable. When Cecilia leaves the frame, the audience is left searching for something to look at. Then the frying pan on the stove smokes and flares up, and Cecilia and James’ daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) rush back into frame to put out the burst of flame. Very little happens in those minutes, but watching the smoke slowly build, then erupt, without knowing whether anyone’s nearby to stop it, is an incredibly tense manipulation of the audience.
On the other side of this is the appearance of the Invisible Man himself. Whannell forgoes the gauze-wrapped mummy look of earlier Invisible Man adaptations, replacing it with a wonderfully unnerving suit of patchwork hexagons, perfect for a modern adaptation. The design is especially creepy when it’s damaged, leaving Adrian flickering in and out of visibility, like a living glitch. It would have been easy to avoid showing the suit at all, but Whannell makes the half-visible enemy an asset.
The Invisible Man slips in the mechanical nature of its story, however. Whannell sets up his ideas well in advance and then calls back to them, but his setups are often so awkward that it feels like he constructed the script in reverse — the invisible man showing his hand too early. After her escape from the compound, Cecilia tosses her zipped-up go-bag into the back seat of a car, and then Whannell shows a bottle of sleeping pills drop to the ground. The awkwardness of the framing is like a neon sign pointing out a plot-relevant item, too obvious to really be foreshadowing. Similar moments accompany the reveal of most of the story-important objects, leaving very little to viewers’ imagination. The plot gears grind in these moments, because it’s clear that how things happen matters less than whether events push the story toward the next moment.
The writing is reminiscent of Whannell’s work on the Saw movies, which rely on expertly executed twists and plot mechanics. But in a story about emotional manipulation, the structure doesn’t work as well; it’s so focused on massaging the action that it doesn’t allot much time for character growth or development. The Cecilia who escapes the compound is clearly skilled, clever, and capable, because that’s what she needs to be to move the plot forward. After she recovers from the ordeal, she exhibits less of all those traits.
She has a few moments of brilliance, like calling Adrian’s cellphone to see if he’s nearby — but then she doesn’t think it’s weird that this tech genius has somehow failed to silence his phone. It’s frustrating to see her grab a kitchen knife, the classic weapon of housebound horror waifs, and ignore any more creative option that might help her fight someone invisible. In a house full of options, why would you bring a knife to an invisible fight?
The Invisible Man is trying to be about a real and serious situation — domestic abuse that extends into stalking — but the movie suggests Whannell doesn’t really know what that looks like. Although he seems to understand that isolation is a key aspect, the movie dispatches Cecilia’s support network with confusingly little care. For instance, her sister Emily, who was willing to drive into the middle of the woods to pick Cecilia up after her escape, is neatly excused from the story by a vague, mean email from Cecilia’s account, one of the few instances of digital sabotage.
And early on, Cecilia learns she’s inherited a great deal of money from Adrian, which opens up an interesting avenue to explore the ways the legal system can be used to harass abuse survivors, through extended divorce proceedings or lawsuits that force victims to face their abusers in court. Instead, the legal facet isn’t explored at all; while the inheritance moves the plot forward, it doesn’t interact with the structure or themes in any way.
Above all, The Invisible Man is a horror movie, and it’s clear from that start that Whannell knows how to develop tension and craft some truly excellent scares. But in the end, that competency makes it all the more frustrating that the framework of domestic abuse is used so cavalierly. Whannell had the opportunity to make visible the mechanics of abuse, but instead opted to keep The Invisible Man in the shadows.
The Invisible Man opens in theaters in wide release on Feb. 28.