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Critic After Dark

The Invisible Man
Directed by Leigh Whannell

Adaptations of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man have always wrestled with the central premise: if you can’t see the protagonist, how can he frighten you? How, stepping back a bit, does he make any kind of impression on the big screen? Unlike horror classics like Frankenstein or Dracula, silent filmmakers never risked an attempt; we had to wait till James Whale’s 1933 version — with ingenious matte effects by John P. Fulton and Frank D. Williams — before we saw Wells’ Griffin undo the bandages wrapped round his head, revealing nothing inside.

Whale solved the problem by casting Claude Rains in the eponymous role (the studio had wanted Boris Karloff, an equally charismatic actor); Rains had an velvety voice that made an impression even in an apparently empty room; joke was Whale often had to scold Rains for stealing the scene from his co-star Gloria Stuart.

Vincent Price (another impressive vocal presence) took over in a few of the sequels; Kevin Bacon played him in Paul Verhoeven’s eloquently titled The Hollow Man (good actor; not a fan of the movie). This 2020 version was meant to star Johnny Depp, though the production dragged on to the point Depp was no longer attached. Director Leigh Whannell rethought the film’s premise: if you can’t see the threat, how do you make him threatening? You make his very absence threatening. How to make his absence threatening? You focus on the person being threatened — in this case, Griffin’s abused wife.

That’s half the brilliance of the premise; the other half is casting Elizabeth Moss as Cecilia “Cee” Kass, the aforementioned wife. Moss can apparently do anything, from comedy (Us) to science fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale) to militantly feminist crime thrillers (Top of the Lake) — the latter being especially terrific, as Moss’ Detective Griffin (!) is a strong yet complex police officer, steely armor hiding profound vulnerabilities.

Moss brings the same force and honesty to this role, though at the outset she’s all vulnerability — as the film opens we see Cee (clever clever nickname) gently lift her husband’s arm off her body, carefully slip out of bed; she’s just drugged him, and is attempting to flee from his hi-tech glass-and-stone surveillance-camera’d mansion/fortress.

Cee succeeds — just. The real twist happens weeks later, when she’s safe under the roof of old friend Detective James Lanier (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Griffin has committed suicide, left all his money to her; both threat and uncertain prospects resolved in a single stroke. So why does she keep staring at one corner of her room as if someone was there?

Perhaps Whannell’s third achievement — after the initial premise and casting choice — is in choosing to keep the eponymous character out of sight for as long as possible. The director uses long takes, often with the camera locked down. Sometimes you see something happening — a knife slipping off a kitchen counter, a burner’s flames suddenly dancing taller — sometimes you don’t, and it’s in the moments when you don’t that the terror really thickens. Is he there? Or has Cee’s paranoia been working on you overtime?

The term “gaslighting” has been used by critics, as well as “psychological abuse” — “sexual” and “physical” have been implied. Cee in her words, expressions, gestures is a palimpsest marked by everything her husband has done to her, from the spasm of fear that shoots up her body when she accidentally kicks an object across Griffin’s immaculately polished floor (he’s apparently a control freak even down to house maintenance) to the downcast eyes, the shame burning in her voice when Cee dumps the rest of the details about his abuse in the catchall term “among other things.” She’s also a survivor — when we first see her she’s attempting escape; later she’s applying for a job, trying to reclaim her life. When she first cottons on to the possibility that her husband has made himself invisible it’s a hunch at first; when other odd events occur she doesn’t fall back to blaming herself, she assumes it’s him — a stretch, perhaps (James, who first hears her assertion, is understandably skeptical), but in terms of an abuse survivor’s progress a palpable step forward.

As for Griffin’s invisibility (skip the rest of this article if you haven’t seen the film!) — active camouflage suits using OLED tech are actually a thing, with camera/video screens recording light from behind and displaying it as a video image in front, rendering the wearer invisible. The present tech is limited by distortions and the fact that most prototypes are effective only in a specific range of wavelengths, or from a single angle — but the way Whannell’s suit acts suggests the cameras and video screens act in high-speed coordination with some kind of AI woven into the suit’s fabric, something improbable but not impossible by today’s standards. A more plausible workaround, at least, than Wells’ chemical mixture designed to reduce a body’s “refractive index.”

It’s not a perfect film. Whannell comes from the horror genre, and seems more focused on springing unlikely plot twists than character plausibility — can we believe, for example, that Cee’s sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) had no idea of her years of abuse? Adrian Griffin (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, the novel never tells us Griffin’s first name) has a younger brother Tom (Michael Dorman) who acts as Adrian’s lawyer, and who Cee accurately describes as a “jellyfish,” basically Adrian without the spine (devastating moment) — granted Adrian manipulated his brother all their lives, will Tom go that far to please his older sibling? At one point Cee splashes Adrian with white paint — how did he get that stuff off so quickly (so it’s water soluble — even a shower wouldn’t clear the gunk off 100%)? Likewise the clumsy plot mechanics dragging Cee back into Adrian’s house, right back out (Why would the Uber driver be willing to wait so long?), back in yet a third time — after a while you feel Whannell is channeling Adrian a tad too much.

Reading Wells’ novel it’s surprising to realize how much Griffin thought and acted like a hunted animal — early on he loses his resources, he loses the affection and loyalty of everyone he knows, and he’s frustrated in his search for a cure; at the same time Griffin’s disdain for general humanity increases in inverse proportion to the point of madness, and he confides to a former acquaintance that he plans to start a “Reign of Terror.” Invisibility in this case feels more like a curse than a power, and if Wells withholds from us Griffin’s first name, makes the character so unlikeable, that could be deliberate — we’re constantly in danger of sympathizing with him too much, the novel turned into tragic melodrama rather than the more ambivalent creature it is.

Whannell, with a huge help from Moss, works an equivalent miracle on Cee — we sympathize with her plight, but there’s a steely strength buried beneath all that panic that cuts through our sympathy, makes her impressive if not a little frightening. Yes, Adrian was a formidable invisible man; not sure I’d want to tangle with his invisible woman.