Review: 'The Invisible Man' (2020) Dir. Leigh Whannell
A tense and nightmarish look at what happens when you pick up an Uber passenger from hell...
Cecilia "Cee" Kass (Moss) escapes a volatile, abusive relationship with optics engineer boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Cohen).
With support from her sister Emily (Dyer) and police detective friend James (Hodge), Cecilia tries to rebuild her shattered life.
But paranoia creeps in. A number of small occurrences around the home convince Cecilia she is not alone. It becomes clear a nightmarish force linked to Adrian is out to destroy Cecilia’s life, and everything she holds dear…
The crashing waves, the feeling of isolation. The booming silence with broken breath, creeping footsteps and buzzing lights. Safety and security is key here for Elisabeth Moss just minutes into this modern spin on a classic horror story, and it’s clear she’s a victim who doesn’t feel safe. Less than 10 minutes in and director Leigh Whannell (of silent hit ‘Upgrade’ fame) sets out the entire theme, tone and sense of dread. Whannell has proved himself to be a talent of his chosen genres, and here he makes it clear this is something different, yet familiar, in the guise of an ever present, invisible menace – fear.
Whannell is a man who understands the genre he is bringing to life. With ‘The Invisible Man’, he really does channel the uncertainty and panic in things you can’t see with your eyes but your mind sees instead. A winning tactic for real underlying horror instead of in your face, big, brutal and bold jump-scares, violence and gore (there is violence and gore, but it's perfectly served up in precise moments).
It’s the little things. The diegetic noise of footsteps, doors, traffic, breathing, a door bell, car engines – everything normal is used as a weapon against abuse victim Cecilia, played with immense power and gravitas by Moss.
Giving our lead this trauma from the outset lends to the pain yet come, so it’s clear nothing is going to get easier or any more comfortable to watch.
This is very slick technical film. Very tight in the framing of rooms and people, of careful editing and cinematography to make you see and hear what Cecilia sees and hears, without being P.O.V. Much like ‘Upgrade’, we are often thrown right into the middle of what unfolds, but this time it’s a slow, foreboding unravelling of a victim’s sanity. With this underpinned by a cold and chilling soundtrack by Benjamin Wallfisch, you’ll be left with a pounding heart and sweaty palms each time Cecilia turns on a light (the sound of the switch is quiet, but also deafening) and the camera slowly takes in her empty surroundings.
And this is all before we even get a hint of the titular invisible man. And the first time we do, it’s beautifully teased and played for malice with no fanfare or shock. He’s just…there. And the nightmare has already begun.
Moss has touched gold with many of her roles; mostly small screen with ‘The West Wing’, ‘Mad Men’ and most recently ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Here, she continues to prove her acting talent with any given material, even an tried and tested horror story by H. G. Wells. Moss doesn’t play Cecilia as the typical horror victim thrown into a random situation. She plays a broken, scared victim of abuse and her abuser, optics engineer boyfriend Adrian Griffin (a nice nod to the original story) played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen. And while we never see Adrian as he is hinted at being the source of the continued abuse to Cecilia, it’s this guessing game of who is behind the horror or the trickery.
With solid support from the likes of Aldis Hodge as police officer friend James, Storm Reid as his daughter and Harriet Dyer as sister Emily, it’s a cast who bring important people to life in Cecelia’s world and then get caught up in the horror also.
Whannell plays a powerful abuse theme through the film and doesn’t need to pile up bodies or smash windows, fire guns….it is not this sort of horror. It’s a psychological horror about finding your life taken over, seeing it spiral out of control and those around you fall apart by a force you can’t see. Thankfully there’s so much more to the terror of an invisible man than just what trouble he can cause knocking things over or setting pans on fire.
But when Whannell does allow him to add personal fuel to the fire just under an hour in, it becomes a new sort of game. The visual effects bring the terror to life and Moss faces the invisible enemy through all sorts of ways such as paint, crockery and coffee beans. As Whannell did with ‘Upgrade’, the physical action and stunt work is slick and effective in moving the pace of the story on, not just there for the sake of it. And while Moss isn’t here for action sequences, it’s her physical and emotional power that hit’s harder against the threat than any weapon. And this is still and woven with the steady cameras, the echoing and rattling noises all around her, and the soundtrack that just doesn’t go away. A stand-out sequence in a hospital channels that one-shot, smooth production and choreography seen in ‘Upgrade’ for something engrossing, exciting and wonderfully played out with well-used visual effects.
Just when you think there is some solace in proceedings, the nightmare strikes again and shatters it. This sort of terror continues in a battle of wits and mind. When things start to fall into place and science takes over the supernatural, don’t be too confident thinking you know how it plays out until the role-reversing conclusion.
It’s a story that has been done before, in books and films, but this interpretation for a new generation proves the source material is solid and effective when handle with the level of talent evident here. It’s a blessing that this version also escaped the umbrella of the ‘Dark Universe’ franchise that ‘The Mummy’ failed to ignite.
This story, in terms of tone, theme and production, goes way beyond a loud, visual effects laden blockbuster that not even Tom Cruise could save.
While ‘Die Another Day’ had the same idea for a car, ‘The Invisible Man’ uses said idea to a much better, horrific effect for, well, a man.
'The Invisible Man' is a Universal Pictures/ Blumhouse Productions film