The Invisible Man is about a man who is actually invisible, but it works a lot better as an allegory. Its subject is the long reach of trauma, and how, as a victim, your perpetrator lives on inside of you, even after he is gone. He makes you a worse version of yourself. Sometimes, he even makes you hurt the people you love. He controls you, and in the end, it’s not clear whether he’s made himself invisible or you.
Officially, the film is yet another adaptation of the H. G. Wells sci-fi novel, but writer and director Leigh Whannell brilliantly spins it into a harrowing domestic horror. It opens on Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), escaping from her abusive husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in the middle of the night. He chases her down the road and breaks the window of her car with his fist, but she gets away. She is staying with a friend, trying to recover from the trauma Adrian inflicted upon her, when she receives unexpected news: Adrian is dead. He has ended his life and left her a hefty sum of money.
She is free—that’s what everyone tells her, including her loving sister (Harriet Dyer), her police officer friend (Aldis Hodge), and even Adrian’s brother (Michael Dorman), who reveals that he was also a victim of Adrian’s abuse. She knows better. Adrian wouldn’t make things so easy for her. Her suspicions take a turn for the far-fetched when strange things start to happen. Items in her home move from where she left them. A burner on the stove turns on by itself and almost sets the kitchen ablaze. She tells people that Adrian is still alive and has somehow made himself invisible. Understandably, everyone thinks she’s lost it.
In the first half of the movie, Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio place Cecilia in the corner of the frame, focusing our eyes on the empty space, inviting us to imagine who might be lurking there. It’s deeply unnerving and incredibly effective. Meanwhile, Whannell’s screenplay wisely stays in the present. He avoids showing us the abuse Adrian inflicted on Cecilia. We gather everything we need to from her shaky hands, darting eyes, and trembling voice.
When living in this tenuous state somewhere between metaphor and reality, The Invisible Man is thrilling. The terrors of escaping from an abusive relationship have been depicted in films before—there are similarities here to 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy—but the unknowns that underpin so much of this film make its themes come alive. For a good chunk of time, we don’t know if The Invisible Man is science fiction, horror, or a domestic drama. We don’t know what kind of world we’re living in, which means anything can happen. That’s an exciting place to be as an audience member.
So it’s a little disappointing that the film eventually picks a lane and drives to its most obvious conclusions. Before long, there are jump scares and surprise murders. Eventually, the villain becomes a little more visible, turning a rich metaphor into a prosaic, B movie slasher. Even Moss’ performance, so attuned to the nuances of trauma in the early going, devolves into revenge movie clichés. There’s nothing wrong with an old-fashioned horror flick, but it’s a little frustrating to watch a film make a grab for greatness and end up grasping only air.
The Invisible Man opens Friday in theaters everywhere.
To Do This Week is your twice-weekly email roundup of arts and cultural events. It’s the perfect way to know what’s going on, and subscribing is a great way to support us.