More often than not when we watch a movie, it takes a while to be fully immersed in the goings-on. Our minds tend to drift, maybe just for a fraction of a second, maybe longer, as we process the information that’s being fed to us, in an effort to forge a connection with its characters and the world in which they reside in. Every now and again, though, we get a film with an opening scene so immaculately directed that we’re immediately slapped unconscious and transported into its reality. The opening scenes of The Godfather, The Dark Knight and The Social Network come to mind. The opening of The Invisible Man may not turn out to be as iconic as the ones in those films, but it sure as hell is transfixing.
For the lack of a better word, we open in a bedroom. Elizabeth Moss is in bed with a man much like in season 3 episode 7 of Mad Men. But unlike the episode, Moss’ character isn’t in a state of deep sleep after a good night of passionate lovemaking. Her hand doesn’t fall to her side and out of bed. It’s late into the night but her eyes are wide open. She takes the hand that’s wrapped around her waist and slowly pushes it aside, careful not to make a sound. You think, perhaps it’s because she wants to take a leak or get some fresh air without waking up her man. But as she leaves the room, she starts to move with purpose and intent. She’s composed, but her eyes tell a different story, one marked with desperation and fear. You can’t hear it, but you can feel the loud thumps of her heart. The tension escalates. Your heart rate starts to elevate too.
She’s also prepared. She proceeds to a large room filled with computers and other gadgets and begins switching off all the security cameras in the house. You get the feeling that she’s been meticulously planning for this night for ages. On the monitor, you see the man, still fast asleep. As she walks around the house gathering her essentials that’s stashed in a vent, the camera follows her quietly. You worry that she’s being followed. Her pace quickens. The tension escalates some more. You start to get desperate too. It’s like you’ve run your lungs out for 19.5 kilometres and now the string that’s tied across the finish line is in sight. All you have to do is sprint towards it and it’ll be all over. As she walks towards the garage and towards the exit, the silence is smashed by the sound of a dog barking. My heart wasn’t racing anymore — it just stopped beating altogether. She pats the dog to quiet it down before running through a forest and on to the side of a road as Benjamin Wallfisch’s music fiercely penetrates the roars through the speakers. She’s about to get into the car that has just arrived and we see a man sprinting towards her. He punches the window of the car but the car speeds away…
It was at this point where I thought to myself, holy sh*t! This is going to be awesome. In a few short minutes, director Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3, Upgrade) crafts suspense, makes us care deeply for the protagonist and feel genuinely afraid for her safety. He does so without jump scares, loud screechy music nor exposition. The best part is, the man — the element of horror — was sound asleep and out of frame for the most of it.
Through precise placement and deliberate movement of the camera, Whannell slowly inches us towards the edge of our seats, as we sit there helpless, anxiously wondering if she’s going to make it. Wondering if the man is following her. With a magnificently staged opening act, Whannell turns the woman into a survivor, the man into a cruel beast without explaining anything with words. It’s a fantastic piece of atmospheric horror filmmaking. One that extends throughout the film.
A while later, Cecilia (Moss), who’s now living together with a family friend and his daughter learns that her abusive ex, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has committed suicide. Cecilia even inherits $US 5 million. Everything seems okay for a while until Cecilia realises that she’s being stalked by her ex possibly. Except nobody can see him, not even her. He’s an invisible man.
The Invisible Man is thrilling from start to finish. Whannell understands that merely suggesting that someone/something could be there watching and stalking can strike more fear in you than just blatantly showing you a CGI monster in a mirror. A lot of the times, Whannell would pan towards an empty chair or a hollow hallway and you begin to wonder if the invisible man is there. Look at the way he captures three happy people celebrating in a kitchen — from behind a wall, Cecilia, her friend and his daughter slightly out of focus. We don’t know if Adrian is there, but we wear Cecilia’s shoes and start to always look over our shoulders too. We’re defenceless and afraid. Whannell shows enormous restraint. So much so that when there is a jumpscare, it’s effective. It’s still a sudden jolt, it’s still shocking, but here the shock carries weight. You’re enveloped by fear. You care for Ceilia, root for her and desperately want her to survive.
The best horror films aren’t roller coaster rides. They’re earnest and about something real. They get under your skin. Most adaptations of The Invisible Man are told from the perspective of the hunter. Leigh Whannell’s version is about a victim of domestic abuse whose mind is shackled and f**ked with by a man who’s influential and rich. What happens when you know you’re being stalked but there’s no evidence to suggest so and so nobody believes you? Your good friends support and understand you, but they don’t believe you. Cecilia is alone and suffocating. She knows she’s not crazy, but there are moments where she wonders if she is. How can she not, when the whole world seems to suggest so?
But it’s also more than that. The invisible man is a symbol of how encompassing domestic abuse can be. Even when the victim moves away, she can’t move on. Going outside to collect the mail is difficult. Taking a shower isn’t as peaceful and meditative as you remembered it to be. You close your eyes but you’re never truly asleep. Because you’re afraid that your ex just might be lurking outside your window or inside your bedroom. The Invisible Man is haunting because you feel empathy for Cecilia. This empathy is felt because of good writing and direction. It’s also felt because Elizabeth Moss is terrific as Cecilia. Whannell lingers on Cecilia in a closeup shot and Moss brings you into her soul. But Moss doesn’t just bring vulnerability to her character but also resilience and resolve.
The film isn’t perfect. At times it asks you to leap over logic with it. There’s a scene that takes place in a fine-dining restaurant (no spoilers) in which something ghastly happens and the drama intensifies. Cecilia, who was on the verge of victory suddenly feels the weight of the entire world collapse over her. Everything becomes a blur. But all of it could’ve been prevented if just one person in the restaurant was paying attention to Cecilia’s table or… if someone bothered to check the security cameras. Here’s the thing though, I didn’t think of that while watching the movie, only after. I was so enraptured by the proceedings, so involved in the protagonist’s trajectory that the emotional logic of it trumped the logical logic. In the moment, all I felt was hopelessness and anger.
I wasn’t a big fan of Leigh Whannell’s Insidious: Chapter 3. But even there, Whannell showed great promise. I am, however, a fan of his second feature, Upgrade. But The Invisible Man is easily his best film to date. Its thrills are palpable. It doesn’t make you jump out of your seat a lot (perhaps only once), but it sure as hell will keep you make you look over your shoulders when you’re walking to the bathroom at night, when you’re carrying your groceries to the car, when you take a shower, for a very long time.
The Invisible Man (2020)
The Invisible Man is thrilling from start to finish. Whannell understands that merely suggesting that someone/something could be there watching and stalking can strike more fear in you than just blatantly showing you a CGI monster in a mirror.