Remaking a concept, especially a well-known one, can be a challenging proposition. Can you possibly say something with it that has not already been said? More importantly, can you tell a new story in a way that justifies dragging an old premise out of mothballs? Thankfully, in regards to the latest adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel The Invisible Man (at least the sixth big screen take on it), the answer to both of those questions is a resounding yes.
The trailer for this version seemed promising. It definitely appeared to be a different approach to the material. However, it was one of those trailers that made me feel like I knew everything about the movie except for what it would be like to watch it for 114 minutes (without the end credits). As it turns out, the plot follows roughly the path I expected it to. Still, it worked on me. It is a skillfully made suspense thriller that kept me consistently engrossed, even though I sort of knew where it was going. It applies the familiar idea to a story about domestic abuse in a way that felt shockingly appropriate. Using a touchy topic in a genre entry can be tricky. Here, the filmmakers pull it off, never making it feel exploitative. After a slow start to 2020, this may be a sign that this year’s good movies are now coming out.
Cecilia is in a relationship with Adrian, a man who physically and psychologically abuses her. In a tense opening sequence, she runs from him and goes into hiding. Shortly after her escape, she is told he has committed suicide. That is when the real torture begins, as unexplainable events start to occur, leading her to suspect Adrian may somehow still be alive.
The title gives away the game, but The Invisible Man never plays it as a mystery anyway. What is happening to Cecilia is immediately pretty clear and knowing it does not lessen the suspense at all. While I enjoyed what writer/director Leigh Whannell did with the concept, the movie works at such a high level because of how capably he builds and maintains tension. He uses sound incredibly well, making us strain to hear the slightest noises to try to figure out where Adrian is lurking. He also takes advantage of space; first, Adrian’s mansion on the water, then the house Cecilia stays in once she gets free. Whannell establishes those locations and lets the characters mess around with what we know about them. Not just the invisible Adrian, also Cecilia, trying to outsmart her malevolent foe. Though the journey was fairly predictable, the way it got to each step was clever and entertaining.
He gets good performances from his cast, particularly Elisabeth Moss as the damaged, but resilient, Cecilia. She is not merely a victim. She is a woman tired of being controlled and devastated to be yanked back into her abuser’s orbit when she thought she was free to restart her life. Moss sells every aspect of the plot as realistically as she can. It does not matter if I believe what is happening is possible in real life as long as I believe it is happening to her. Moss treats it like drama, not sci-fi. As a whole, The Invisible Man uses its hook as a way to tell her story, instead of in place of it. That allows Moss to bring honest emotion to the role and gives her a more impactful arc than normal for the genre.
The rest of the cast is good, too. Aldis Hodge is first caring, then concerned, as the man who lets Cecilia stay with him and his daughter as she tries to get back on track. It is his usual solid effort. Harriet Dyer is Cecilia’s sister, strong and loving. Of course, the second most important character, despite his relatively scant screen time, is Adrian. He is played by Jewish actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen as an arrogant, rich, powerful, manipulative, sociopath. While much of his character setup is done using Cecilia’s dialogue, Jackson-Cohen creates an easy to hate villain after only a few moments in the opening scene.
The Invisible Man is compelling, with a fitting, and timely, story. One of the biggest fears of victims of abuse or harassment is not being believed if they were to come forward. Many of them are called liars and have their sanity questioned. Adrian’s invisibility is a metaphor for how powerless many feel in Cecilia’s situation. It is an obvious one, yet it is effective because Whannell does not overplay his hand. The themes are present without overwhelming the gimmick and vice versa. The result is a very good thriller.
4 out of 5
Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass
Aldis Hodge as James Lanier
Harriet Dyer as Emily Kass
Storm Reid as Sydney Lanier
Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Adrian Griffin
Michael Dorman as Tom Griffin
Written and Directed by Leigh Whannell