Runtime: 124 Minutes
Writer/Director: Leigh Whannell
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Oliver Jackson-Cohen
By Mique Watson
The question I am sure you all have on your minds is: what’s the point? Why bother attempting to remake a classic film, based on a century-old novel? I scratched my head the moment I heard Leigh Whannell (screenwriter of “Saw” and Insidious”) was attached to pen the screenplay and direct. Given the recent trend of ‘woke’ films bombing–and the decision to shift the focus away from the invisible man himself–I couldn’t help but be baffled by how anyone thought this project was a worthwhile idea.
Now that I’ve seen it, I am horrified about just how current it feels. Universal clearly wasn’t interested in re-hashing old scare tactics and merely re-presenting an old tale with updated CGI. This iteration is one designed to deliberately carve out a new domain of horror on screen, one presented with disturbing tangibility.
This isn’t a film designed for “mere” entertainment; it’s a paradigm-shifting beast which provides a new framework for talking about gaslighting—one that in this #MeToo era is undoubtedly necessary. This isn’t a film you watch—it’s a film you experience; it’s a life you live. It immerses you in a story of a woman; her perspective in a way that isn’t familiar—it shows us how it feels to be a woman in today’s society and presents nuances that show how a woman’s lived experience is different.
“The Invisible Man” makes you feel that the mere state of being a woman is horrifying. Your space and body become something readily available for being invaded without your consent. From the very first scene, we are inescapably plunged into Cecilia’s (Elisabeth Moss) world. Its taut opening sees Cecilia, as she lays in the arms of her captor..err..boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). In a series of strategically executed plans and manoeuvres, she manages to diffuse the house’s security system and escape; the small setbacks she encounters are subtle, yet frightening with their implications.
This isn’t a film designed for “mere” entertainment; it’s a paradigm-shifting beast which provides a new framework for talking about gaslighting—one that in this #MeToo era is very much needed.
The film opts to frame the title character as a villain—and shift the role of the protagonist to Cecilia, a San Francisco architect who has unwittingly become a prisoner to Adrian and the recipient of his repeated, controlling abuse. The scars women who’ve been abused bare aren’t just physical–they’re invisible, and they remain in her mind to linger long after the physical ones have disappeared.
She takes refuge with her childhood friend, James (Aldis Hodge)—a cop living with his young daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). Cecilia, who has now developed agoraphobia, appears to have finally claimed some agency back. She then learns that Adrian has committed suicide (or has he!), and has left her with quite the hefty sum. A sum which would certainly finance her future and assist her in her altruistic endeavours. Adrian’s brother, Tom (Micahel Dorman)—who is apparently handling his late sibling’ estate—claims that any suspicions are for nought. Yet, Cecilia cannot find it in herself to be completely convinced that this isn’t too good to be true.
Suspicious and sinister things begin to occur. Is Cecilia being tormented by her dead lover? Or is she on the brink of completely losing her mind? These questions are answered relatively quickly; the suspense here shifts from the internal to the external.
As Cecilia takes steps to rectify the agoraphobia, Whannell signals to us that something is undoubtedly amiss. He does so with expert blocking and framing; he isolates Cecilia in the frame of the shot and surrounds her with negative space to convey both isolation and asphyxiation. The cinematography, married with the context of the shot works together to deploy fear from the most unexpected of places: a seemingly unmotivated camera pan into an empty corner comes with spine-tingling implications. Cecilia’s isolation is fraught with tension; this is elevated by Benjamin Wallfisch’s vicious score.
As Cecilia begins her one-woman battle against an oppressive, omnipresent authority—we realize that this force seeks to impose control on all aspects of her life: her career, her friends, and her very thoughts and feelings. Moss effortlessly conveys a kind of unstable, yet sturdy demeanour with the fervour of a seasoned performer. She spends significant parts of this film all alone, speaking to nothing but the space of an empty room. Her technique never wavers for a second. She digs so deep into the mindset of someone who has been conditioned to constantly doubt and debase herself. Moss, through her raw-nerved bursts adamantly refuses to let Cecilia be classified as a cliché. We, the viewers, are in her shoes the entire time, desperately aching for her to overcome a reality she can’t prove to anyone.
The invisible man here isn’t merely a villain, he is a metaphor for the collective unseen things people unconsciously do to one another.
Her invisible abuser himself may remain unseen, but the fear he creates is in plain sight. Whannell’s most significant achievement here is how he is able to put us right square into Cecila’s shoes and transform a woman’s often silenced trauma into something disturbingly tangible. Whannell chooses a path that doesn’t leave us questioning Cecilia’s truth. It’s as if we’ve been dropped into the screen and hand-cuffing us to her—we feel her frustration and are on her side even when every other person in her life refuses to be, and believably so.
What happens after this is a series of half-familiar thriller tropes. I’ve used the word ‘half’ because Whannell plays us like a violin; he reintroduces these tropes and sheds a haunting new light on them. Cecilia does several things that normally would be deemed risible in other films of this nature–but give the context of her story, they’re made unnervingly plausible. For instance: why is she running up into the attic when she should be darting toward the door? I’ll tell you why: because after years of having been convinced that she is insane, she now has the independence to validate the worth of her own mind and its capacity to judge and investigate–essentially, to prove to herself that she is sane.
The invisible man here isn’t merely a villain, he is a metaphor for the collective unseen things people unconsciously do to one another. Things which seem innocent at first, but inadvertently lead to more harm than good.
For the most part, we don’t actually see what is haunting Cecilia. Thus, there is never a feeling that she is in a safe space. Often times, people who’ve been gaslit have had their safe spaces invaded, because the gaslighter has been able to convince them that they were in a safe space, to begin with.
“I need you to believe what I am about to tell you”, Cecilia says at one point. We wince because we know full well that those in her life are unaware of what we know. Whannell, however, shoots Moss in such a way that makes the story subjective to Cecilia–he observes her intimately (yet thankfully not gratuitously); this amplifies the fears we have on her behalf knowing how someone on the outside will handle what she is about to tell them.
For the most part, we don’t actually see what is haunting Cecilia. Thus, there is never a feeling that she is in a safe space. Often times, people who’ve been gaslit have had their safe spaces invaded, because the gaslighter has been able to convince them that they were in a safe space, to begin with. Even when Cecilia is in a public place, or a restaurant, her space is invaded–every single aspect of her life, even ones which should be private, have her looking over her trembling shoulder.
This is all indicative of the truly original and terrifying experience: the film elicits empathy and understanding in ways very few other films in this genre ever achieve. It holds a mirror to its audience and elides our personal experience with that of its protagonist. And then it makes its way into a finale that holds up a giant middle finger to the rule of protagonists always having to take the moral high ground. It turns into a suggestive Rorschach test of the individual’s own subjective experience–and how these experiences coalesce with those of Cecilia’s.
By the end, I was cheering on the inside even if what I had just witnessed was…something morally objectionable. But then again–who am I to judge; and what does my judgment say about me? I have no recollection of ever having been personally gaslit, yet the catharsis I felt at the end was one of someone who probably has. This catharsis is immediately followed by deep despondency because, in the end, all she really ever had was herself.