by Andrew Wyatt on Feb 26, 2020

It’s not often remembered by contemporary genre fans, but H.G. Wells’ 1897 science-fiction novel The Invisible Man has quite the evocative subtitle: A Grotesque Romance. Wells was employing that word, “romance,” in the traditional literary sense, meaning a tale of adventure and mystery. In writer-director Leigh Whannell’s disturbing new film adaptation, however, the term carries more twisted connotations. Wells was supposedly inspired in part by a myth recounted in Plato’s Republic, which postulated that the license granted by invisibility would quickly twist a human psyche into depraved supervillainy. Whannell’s approach feels closer to Nabokov (or Vince Gilligan): The power to remain unseen would reveal and amplify the depravity that was present all along. Here, invisibility is just another weapon (albeit a potent one) in the arsenal of a domineering sociopath, who employs it to remorselessly manipulate and terrorize the woman he claims to love.

In this latest iteration of the tale, Whannell has shifted the viewpoint from the titular villain to his abused girlfriend and principal victim, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss). In effect, Whannell’s film is a repulsive sci-fi/horror reimagining of Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) and its ilk: psychological thrillers in which a woman flees (and eventually fights back against) a monstrous, tyrannical partner. It’s the sort of high concept that could have been cheesy, but the filmmaker transforms it into a harrowing experience through icy art-horror style, shocking violence, and a smart understanding of the story’s acute metaphorical resonance. The existence of an invisible man turns every negative space into a potential threat, after all, a phenomenon that maps disturbingly well onto the PTSD from an emotionally and/or physically abusive relationship. Whannell’s The Invisible Man takes this awful but all-too-common situation and cranks it up into the stuff of nightmares: an abusive ex who could be any place at any time and can act with absolute impunity.

The film’s opening scene constitutes a thrillingly assured bit of nearly wordless storytelling, as Cecilia executes a nerve-wracking, early-morning escape from the modernist cliffside estate of her billionaire Silicon Valley boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Everything the viewer needs to know about Cecilia, the house, and the relationship-cum-captivity she’s fleeing is conveyed in this passage. Her carefully planned self-extraction scheme encounters some unexpected setbacks, however, and it concludes with a narrow escape in her sister’s car after a bloody and terrifying scuffle with an enraged Adrian. For the next few weeks, Cecilia remains in hiding at the home of James (Aldis Hodge), a San Francisco PD officer, single dad, and apparent long-ago mutual friend of Cecilia and sister Alice (Harriet Dyer). James and his teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid), are warm and patient with their unexpected houseguest, which is fortunate for Cecilia, who is still in a state of such heightened dread that she can’t even manage the walk from the front door to the curbside mailbox.

As it happens, Cecilia doesn’t have to keep her head down for long: Shortly after her escape, Adrian kills himself, a turn of events that she finds both preposterous and an enormous relief. As Adrian’s younger brother, Tom (Michael Dorman), later explains, he even bequeathed a chunk of his sizable fortune to her. For the first time in years, Cecilia dares to entertain some hope for the future, making plans to return to her architecture career – abandoned at Adrian’s insistence – and to share her newfound wealth with others. Unfortunately, this is roughly when a series of strange occurrences begin to scuttle into her life. At first, Cecilia simply has a vague but unsettling sensation that someone is watching her. Then a door opens on its own, a blanket is pulled off her bed, a kitchen knife clatters off a counter. Slowly, the weirdness escalates and begins to resemble sabotage. Cecilia’s architecture portfolio vanishes, she collapses from a heavy dose of Valium that she doesn’t remember taking, and someone sends her sister a malicious email from her personal account.

Adrian might be dead, but the all-consuming anxiety he created comes creeping back, and Cecilia’s paranoia begins gnawing away at her. Her late ex made his billions in bleeding-edge optics technology, after all, and the chilly concrete bowels of his estate served as his private laboratory. Is it such a stretch to venture that he faked his own death and is now terrorizing her with some sort of secret invisibility tech? Her sister and James respond predictably to this outlandish notion, but for Cecilia it all feels uncannily, horribly familiar – like Adrian is gaslighting her from beyond the grave.

Arguably best known as the writing partner of 21st-century horror mainstay James Wan, Whannell struck out into fresh territory with his 2018 sci-fi throwback, Upgrade, which blended cyberpunk, body horror, and bone-snapping action to mixed but undeniably wild results. Although The Invisible Man might have a Victorian pedigree, Whannell infuses it with some of Upgrade’s cruel, R-rated energy, emphasizing the grisly violence that could easily be wreaked by a man no one can see coming. There’s no action-flick exhilaration to the film’s brutality, which is directly channeled into its horror ambitions: a throat sliced open with the flick of a carving knife; a man’s face pummeled into bloody hamburger; a dozen police officers slain with buzz-saw efficiency. Whenever Cecilia briefly manages to get the upper hand on her unseen attacker, it’s always through cunning, not by overpowering him.

All this is to say that The Invisible Man is an unexpectedly gruesome horror feature. Given the creepy, controlling misogyny of the title character, this could have resulted in a film that felt exploitative and grindhouse-slimy. (Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven rather notoriously blundered into this problem in his lurid and baffling 2000 take on Wells’ tale, Hollow Man.) However, by keeping the story scrupulously focused on Cecilia’s viewpoint – Moss is in virtually every scene of the film – Whannell turns it into a story of personalized upheaval and violation, the ultimate nightmare scenario for any woman who has escaped an abuser. The film offers enough peeks behind the sci-fi curtain to exclude the possibility of unreliable-protagonist shenanigans. That is to say, while the film throws in a few questionable late-game plot twists, it’s fairly apparent that it’s not pulling a Stage Fright-style (1950) con on the audience. (Or a Fight Club. Or a High Tension. Or a Shutter Island.) However, although Cecilia never truly doubts her own sanity, she’s beset by a destabilizing sensation of helplessness and entrapment that Whannel conveys with ruthless precision.

Simply put: This is a grueling film that never really lets up once it truly gets going. The horrors that are inflicted on Cecilia and those around her can be difficult to watch, especially once it becomes clear that there is no proverbial silver bullet that can stop Adrian. The mechanical perfection of his vengeance is truly diabolical, designed as it is to isolate Cecilia from her family and friends and turn the legal system against her. That said, it’s only a high IQ, financial resources, and a little sci-fi speculation that separate Adrian’s reign of terror from the actions of countless real-world abusers. (Indeed, viewers who are themselves abuse survivors may find The Invisible Man hitting a little too close to home; consider this a content warning.)

Even Adrian’s most depraved misdeeds are cloaked in the language of love, of course – “No one knows you like I do,” he insists with a chilling grin at one point – but it’s a grotesque parody of love, rooted in control and possession. If there’s a flaw in the film’s bleak and unsparing depiction of an abuser’s head games, it lies in how completely Cecilia has shrugged off any contradictions or complexities in her feelings for the man she once cared for. By the time she plans her opening escape, she regards Adrian with nothing but loathing, and her courage has overtaken her fear (if just barely). Like the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Enough (2002), Whannell’s film posits that the only genuine freedom lies in the protagonist counter-attacking and defeating her abuser, a narrative that carries a sour tinge of passive-aggressive victim-blaming. (Why don’t all survivors just turn themselves into badass action heroines and take revenge?) Thankfully, Moss’ talent for persuasively blending anguish, meekness, and steely determination allows The Invisible Man’s Hollywood fantasy to go down smoother, and its copious psychological and physical horrors to cut that much deeper.

Rating: B