Isn’t it one cruel reality of life, that cohabitation and freedom are often at odds with each other? Sometimes this clash is but a minor annoyance, but what if your significant other is a psycho that wants you to be obedient and subservient as you have their babies? Elisabeth Moss knows the feeling, as she runs for her life and her liberation in The Invisible Man. Blumhouse’s reboot of the classic horror tale has been reimagined as a post-#MeToo outcry against gender oppression. It never becomes preachy, instead of relying mostly on the visceral nature of the genre’s tropes to make the theme clear. But as a piece of socially relevant pop-art, it doesn’t entirely stick the landing – mostly because the film succeeds in setting up ideas but stumbles with providing catharsis.
Moss stars as Cecilia Kass, a young woman who plans an elaborate escape from her boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and his Fifty-Shades-of-Greyish mansion. We don’t get a lot of backstory on these two lovers, but the film provides all the visual cues we need. There’s one shot in particular, where Cecilia must free herself from the grasp of a sleeping Adrian while in bed, that’s a perfect summation of the control he’s likely wielded.
Once free, Cecilia retreats to family and friends while anticipating that Adrian will eventually find her. She’s so on edge that she can’t even bring herself to leave her friend’s house and fetch the mail. She’s distraught until she hears the news that Adrian killed himself and left her $5 million dollars in tax-free inheritance. Her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), is relieved but Cecilia doesn’t believe Adrian is dead. And as strange occurrences start happening in her life, she clearly has reason to fear the “deceased.”
Of course, there’s very little mystery of what’s going on because we know what the movie is called. Regardless, The Invisible Man is at it’s best when it’s operating as a thriller, taking it’s time and reveling in the suspense of Cecilia’s predicament. This starts as early as the opening scene (which may be the best in the entire movie) and props up again as Cecilia tries to assimilate back to a normal life. But she can never feel comfortable because even after you’ve escaped such a suffocating situation, the reverberations from that experience carry over.
In that sense, re-purposing the Invisible Man as a toxic boyfriend is a perfect update for the classic character. And Moss is the perfect actor to exhibit the psychosis and feelings of PTSD that would accompany her character. Her performance really carries the movie, with each facial expression and voice inflection telling a story of its own. At the risk of sounding very morbid, but I could watch Elisabeth Moss get stalked by ex-boyfriends for 3 hours.
But while the lead is appropriately effective, the rest of the movie doesn’t quite measure up. Specifically, the third act, where there are turns within the story that are meant to be shocking, but their biggest accomplishment is simply running in place. Twists and reveals, when executed well, are meant to present new information or re-contextualize what we thought we knew before. The reveals in this film do none of that, it only further establishes plot threads and character motivations we already knew.
It’s clear to see that the screenplay, written by the film’s director Leigh Whannell (Upgrade, Insidious: Chapter 3), is best at setting up the action of the film. The set pieces in this film, from Cecilia’s many escapes to her attempts to trap Adrian and their violent scraps, are worth the price of admission. But there’s not much depth to the characters, with the script getting by on a fantastic performance from Moss and charismatic performers (such as Cecilia’s friend James, played by Aldis Hodge) instead of actively elevating those actors.
Upgrade alone shows Whannell’s talents as a director, and much of that is on display here, but it appears the direction is outpacing the writing. At one point, our two main characters have a pivotal conversation, but is mostly unremarkable lacks tension despite this point of the movie demanding the highest level of suspense. This is not to say that film falls off a cliff in the second half; it is still engaging until the end. But for a film that should be leading toward a rousing conclusion, we settle for a flaccid limp to the finish line.
Then, there’s the issue of what The Invisible Man adds to the canon of gender politics in film. Cecilia is a woman who’s stalked and violently abused, and the system around her fails to do anything to stop it. It may appear that her only recourse is to adopt some of the same tactics as her attacker. This is an audacious position, but audacity goes hand in hand with some of the best horrors. Unfortunately, The Invisible Man never evolves its characters, particularly Adrian, beyond their basic archetypes in order to make the film’s themes land with more power. It’s a film that knows how good it could be, but just like Cecilia herself, the film can’t quite see what ails it.