Surprisingly sophisticated, ‘The Invisible Man’ offers a nuanced take on surviving an abusive relationship

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

2017 was a big year for Universal Pictures. On May 22, the studio unveiled their answer to the incredibly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe: a planned series of interconnected monster movies they called the “Dark Universe.” The first movie in the series, “The Mummy,” would release one month later in June serving as the spearhead of the project, and horror fans gathered outside theaters in rapt curiosity. Was this the start of a horror renaissance? 

No. It most certainly was not. 2017’s “The Mummy” bombed and it bombed hard, debuting with a $32 million domestic gross in its opening weekend  — a weekend in which its biggest competition was A24’s lackluster “It Comes at Night.”

The “Dark Universe” was officially scrapped in early 2019, but all was not lost. One film in the works, “The Invisible Man,” was announced to have changed hands to director Leigh Whannell, the writer behind recent horror classics like 2004’s “Saw” and 2010’s “Insidious.” The film was finally released on Feb. 28 of this year, and quite unlike the flagship movie of the “Dark Universe,” it offered a sophisticated take on an important, contemporary social issue: the struggle to survive an abusive relationship.

A remake in name only, “The Invisible Man” borrows only the last name of the original antagonist and his iconic invisibility, providing a wholly original story otherwise. The film opens inside the mansion overlooking the ocean. Protagonist Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) attempts to escape an abusive relationship with her boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She succeeds in escaping, but is told two weeks later that Griffin took his own life. Cecilia attempts to reclaim a sense of normalcy, but something seems off. Griffin, a renowned scientist in the field of optics, had developed suit technology that allows him to turn invisible, and he’s using this newfound power to torment Cecillia. 

Elizabeth Moss does a fantastic job portraying the unfortunate Cecilia Kass. It only makes sense; Moss is perhaps best known for her lead-role as June in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” another character who undergoes torment at the hands of male-abusers. Her performances lend these characters a sort of strength in spite of their circumstances, and it is always a joy to see her on screen.

As for the antagonist, Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s performance as Adrian Griffin doesn’t quite capture the same gravitas Claude Rains showed movie-goers in the 1933 original, but those are big shoes for an invisible man to fill. Using little more than his own voice, Rains managed to endow the character with a manic, mad scientist sort of energy. While Jackson-Cohen does spend a longer amount of time on-screen relative to Rains, but his performance is slightly underwhelming. Still, Jackson-Cohen really sells the “abusive boyfriend” aspect of the character, and though he may not come with as strong of voice-work, he does manage to bring the character into the modern day. 

For obvious reasons, the audience doesn’t see much of antagonist Adrian Griffin throughout most of the movie. In the earlier half, his presence is almost exclusively conveyed through his interactions with the surrounding environment. Cecilia sees his footprints on a blanket laying on the floor, and when she goes outside to investigate her recently opened front door, the ghostly wisps of Griffin’s breath hovering in the night air serve as the only sign that he’s still there, watching her. 

Even when audiences do get a proper look at the eponymous invisible man the scene mostly takes place outside, at night, during heavy rain. Griffin’s vague outline is framed by the water sloughing down his suit, only occasionally short circuiting to reveal the man underneath. These choices make for a uniquely frightening and mentally taxing viewing experience. The audience knows that Cecilia is telling the truth, an invisible man really is ruining her life, but they are forced to sit and watch as Cecilia is treated like she’s completely lost her grip on reality.

In terms of plot, critics will be quick to call certain story beats contrived, writing off the film as unrealistic. And to be sure, Cecilia makes a number of strange decisions while trying to prove she’s being stalked by Griffin. At one point in the film she finds her allegedly deceased ex’s cell-phone in the attic of the home she’s staying in. On the phone are photos of her and her friend Sydney sleeping, but she doesn’t take it to use as evidence. Later on, the invisible man places a knife in her hand to frame her for an assault. Why doesn’t she react and throw the knife down so that onlookers won’t assume she’s the perpetrator? In the eyes of many critics, it seems as though the filmmakers simply needed the plot to progress in this direction, and Cecilia is forced to make bad decisions for the sake of drama. 

It is up to filmgoers to decide whether or not Cecilia’s actions are excusable, but it also bears mentioning that, to some degree, those who find themselves criticizing Cecilia and her decisions echo the skeptics Cecilia encounters throughout the movie. Such skepticism is likely all too familiar to many survivors of toxic relationships. With the rise of the #MeToo movement, victims of abuse are often put on a sort of proverbial trial when they come forward with their experiences, and many onlookers search for reasons to blame the victims themselves for the assault. Whether this was intentional on the filmmaker’s part or not, the analog deserves further analysis.

Verdict: Slightly contrived as it may be, “The Invisible Man” doesn’t just thrill audiences, it does what any good horror movie should: it forces viewers to examine their own society and culture. The invisible man is terrifying not just because you cannot see him, but because he represents abusers who all too often go unseen themselves. 

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