A film review by Craig J. Koban March 5, 2020

THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020) jjjj
 

2020, R, 110 mins.

 

Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Adrian Griffin / The Invisible Man  /  Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass  /  Storm Reid as Sydney  /  Aldis Hodge as James  /  Harriet Dyer as Alice  /  Michael Dorman as Tom

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell

 

 

 

 

There have been countless films over the years that have been made about unstoppable monsters that stalk their unsuspecting and vulnerable prey, but there's something more unspeakably creepy and horrifying about trying to defend oneself against a silent foe that can't been seen...or...worse yet...that no one around you believes exists. 

That's something that the makers of the new iteration of THE INVISIBLE MAN keenly understand.  This remake, of course, is the umpteenth version of this premise that dates as far back as the original Universal horror film series of Hollywood's Golden Age, which, in turn, was adapted from the H.G. Welles' sci-fi novel of the same name.  I wasn't expecting all too much from this film, seeing as I felt that the core concept has literally been done to death by Hollywood.  However, THE INVISIBLE MAN is surprisingly and undeniably the first truly masterful film of 2020: Not only is it a bone chillingly unnerving psychological horror thriller, but it also compellingly works on so many layered thematic levels as a nightmare inducing commentary on domestic abuse. 

The woman in question is an up-and-coming architect named Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss, one of our most underrated performers), who's in a horribly abusive relationship with her monstrously control freak of a boyfriend in Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson Cohen).  He just so happens to be a brilliant scientist working in the field of optics.  As THE INVISIBLE MAN opens we witness Cecilia engage in a nocturnal mission to free herself from this miserable lout by drugging him in his sleep, gathering up everything she needs, and then proceeding to tip-toe around his ocean-view home to ensure her escape and emancipation.  Australian director Leigh Whannell (helmer of the terribly little seen, but quite solid UPGRADE) makes this opening fifteen minutes one for the ages for just how much dread inducing anxiety he conjures up during Cecilia's daring break-out.  And he does so with impeccable usage of silence, security camera footage, uncomfortably long panning shots, the undulating sounds of ocean waves crashing outside, and a deeply unsettling notion that just one tiny bit of noise made by Celilia will wake up this sociopath and spell doom.  This is one of the most effectively staged and scary opening scenes in recent memory, and sets the bar high for what's to come. 

Cecilia does manage to secure her freedom and finds a place of solace at the home of her police officer friend in James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid).  Cecilia also has her lawyer sister to comfort her in Emily (Harriet Dyer), but despite having a supporting friend/family safety net to calm her down and bring her back down to a place of normalcy, Cecilia is nevertheless petrified to journey outdoors in fear that Adrian will find and kill her.  Fate steps in when it's revealed that Adrian has committed suicide and has left Cecilia with a rather large inheritance (payable if she remains criminal record free and with a clean bill of mental health), leaving Emily and James confident that the worst is finally behind her.  Cecilia, on the other hand, is not so sure.  When strange, almost supernatural occurrences begin happening to her, she grows convinced that (a) Adrian is indeed alive and faked his death and (b) that he used his vast understanding of optics and scientific ingenuity to make himself completely invisible, allowing for his continued tormenting of her to go on indefinitely.  As her emotional health begins to unravel she very quickly learns that no one - not even James or Emily - will believe her seemingly cockamamie story without some proof. 

 

 

Unexpectedly, THE INVISIBLE MAN isn't wall-to-wall with VFX in portraying its villain's continued malicious attack on poor Cecilia.  With a remarkably conservative $7 million budget, Whannell fully commits himself to finding novel ways to terrify filmgoers using a thanklessly cost effective approach (compared to Universal's last failed attempt at rebooting a classic monster franchise in 2017's THE MUMMY, star Tom Cruise's salary in that forgettable disaster was twice that of the budget here).  Yes, THE INVISIBLE MAN has effects shots and, yes, there's ample violence and gore to be had here (featuring what has to be one of the most shocking on-screen deaths in a long time), but Whannell isn't interested in sensationalistic eye candy or cheap horror film parlor tricks. He's more interested in going the minimal, JAWS-inspired route of making his monster more terrifying because of the implied menace and danger that he represents.   

Now, of course we don't literally see the antagonist because he's invisible, but that allows Whannell to conjure up scene after scene that keeps things economical and, as a result, unnerving as hell.  Some of the scariest moments of the film simply show the increasingly paranoid Cecilia slowing looking throughout a room for any signs of movement.  It's traumatizing to watch because she's not only alone in these scenes, but also because Adrian may or may not be there drumming up unspeakably dreadful things to do to her while is his camouflaged state.  Whannell gets a lot of mileage out of sinister score by Benjamin Wallfisch, which fiendishly knows when to punctuate scenes for maximum shock factor and when to stay idle to let the performances and direction do the heavy lifting.  Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio do some interesting things with the camera here as well.  There are times when their camera remains still and without movement, pitch perfectly capturing the dismay that Cecilia is going through.  Other times, the camera seems to casually and slowly glide away from her and rests on empty space, where it stays for what seems like an eternity.  The point here is simple: Whannell wants us to share the obsessively mistrustful edge of its battle fatigued heroine.  We stare into these vacant spaces wondering...if anything is actually there that will launch a viscous clandestine attack.  THE INVISIBLE MAN becomes almost excruciating to experience at times as a result.   

Moss is also the emotional glue that holds this enterprise together as well.  She's developed a reputation at this stage in her career for bravely playing characters that go through unspeakable mental and physical hardships (see TV's THE HANDMAID'S TALE), and her tour de force and Oscar nomination worthy performance is no exception.  She has to plausibly play wounded victim that slowly sees her own sanity eroded while simultaneously evoking a desperately empowered raw force that will stop at nothing to put an end to her sadistic ex and prove to everyone around her that she's not nuttier than a fruitcake.  And Cecilia is absolutely damaged goods here, but she doesn't devolve into damsel in distress troupes.  But the odds are really stacked up against her.  She has to wage a solo war on an enemy that has unfathomable wealth and ridiculously powerful tech at his disposal, and one that everyone outside of her thinks is six feet under. 

And ultimately, that's what separates THE INVISIBLE MAN well apart from the litany of other witless, uninspired, and forgettable re-imaginings of classic properties.  Truth be told, not all of the screenplay machinations remain airtight to logic here (and probably less so after repeat viewings), but I never found that these indiscretions distracted from the whole package.  Almost none of the previous INVISIBLE MEN-centric films have been made with this one's level of timely commentary, ghoulish innovation, and viscerally shocking Hitchcockian mind games. THE INVISIBLE MAN stays true to the basic conceits of this ageless premise, but twists and turns it into something more memorably appalling for contemporary eyes.  Whannell's remake works sensationally well as a classic fright fest, to be sure, but there's so much more going on under the hood of it, like the socially relevant reminder of the living hells that victimized women go through while trying to convince everyone around them to listen to and believe their claims of abuse via torturous assailant.  I went into this film expecting another disposable jump scare fest on autopilot, but instead got a disturbingly topical tale that infuses toxic masculinity into this classic monster flick.  And what's scarier than a mad stalker that's capable of cloaking himself from everyone wanting to violently have his way with a woman?  It's the ultimate high concept David versus Goliath #MeToo nightmare scenario. 

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