Film Review | The Invisible Man: The invisible man wants to take it all away

Elisabeth Moss is a victim of domestic abuse whose attacker literally comes back to haunt her in this masterfully executed take on the classic HG Wells novel

Axe-wielding maniacs and killer sharks can certainly be attention-grabbingly terrifying and make for good spectacle when done right. But there’s a reason why the quieter, more intimate avenues of home invasion and psychological horror also remain evergreen examples of the genre. When the threat is so close as to be practically inside you already, what’s to be done?

Such a spine-chilling spirit animates The Invisible Man; yet another loose Hollywood adaptation of HG Wells’ 1897 novel of the same name brought to life by hard-working Australian horror-meister Leigh Whannell, seasoned screenwriter of the Saw and Insidious franchises and more recently, writer-director for Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015) and the cyberpunk thriller Upgrade (2018).

But instead of another retread of the tortured scientist gone mad trope, the Universal-Blumhouse co-creation flash forwards to present day and aligns the focus down to the titular monster’s long-suffering romantic partner, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss). Escaping from her multi-millionaire scientist boyfriend’s seaside home – snaking her way through his underground lair, revealing strange experimental equipment aiming to revolutionise the science of invisibility – she takes refuge at the home of her old friend James (Aldis Hodge), a single father with a teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). While Cecilia gradually begins to overcome the trauma of years of domestic abuse and psychological manipulation at the hands of Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), her estranged sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) stops by to deliver some shocking news which, at the root of it, comes with a sliver of relief: Adrian has been found dead by suicide, and has left behind a five million dollar inheritance to Cecilia is his last will and testament, paid in monthly installments and conditional on her never comitting a crime.

But Cecilia soon realises that Adrian is not dead at all, and that he is using his groundbreaking invisibility suit to torment her as revenge for daring to escape from his sociopathic clutches. Of course, getting anyone to believe this mind-boggling series of events is an impossible feat, and it is on this level that Whannell’s chillers gets the most out of its core concept. Sure, there’s some thrilling wire- and camera-work at play as Adrian gets physical with Cecilia and others, with crockery and more serious weaponry involved in a desperate attempt to dispatch an enemy who can’t even be seen, either in cramped domestic settings or hospital hallways that make for some great swoop-and-stalk coverage that immerses us in the action while cranking up the suspense to eleven.

What’s more affecting, however, is the genial alignment between the idea of an invisible stalker and the cultural tendency to dismiss or outright disbelieve the testimony of women in these situations. We’re left to imagine the more quotidian horrors that Adrian had visited upon Cecilia prior to the film’s ‘fade in’, though Moss’s performance does the necessary heavy lifting to ensure we see the full extent of the psychological scars that he’s left behind. We then get to see the workings of such an evil mind externalised to full effect, as Adrian’s invisibility allows him untrammelled access to her life, with his publicly-announced death making it virtually impossible for anyone around her to believe her story, or offer help once Adrian’s manipulation becomes increasingly more devious, complex and isolating.

The ‘virtually impossible’ is key, of course, to Cecilia being forced to wriggle out of his gargantuan volley of injustices is what’s meant to keep us glued in our seats. Whannell rises to the challenge at every turn, with no small help from Moss.

In a way, this franchise-starter (a sequel is already in the works) bears some DNA traces to a recent horror also lucky to count Moss among its cast: Jordan Peele’s Us. Like that exploration of the frustrated and tamped-down American underclass, The Invisible Man maintains a tight ratio between depth and thrills, ensuring its allegory is fully wedded to an expertly functioning narrative engine that delivers the goods.

The verdict

Brought to nervy, exuberant life thanks to a fantastic central performance by Elisabeth Moss, this latest take on the evergreen HG Wells chiller jolts some hope back into Universal’s now all but aborted hopes for a shared ‘Dark Universe’ reboot of their classic monsters. But more importantly, Whannell’s film very much stands alone as a deliciously suspenseful and effectively executed genre flick with something to say.

More in Film