The thing is, the metaphor at the centre of The Invisible Man is actually a pretty obvious one.
Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) is a woman trying to rebuild her life after leaving her abusive boyfriend, Adrian, a wildly-wealthy tech genius – but, after his apparent suicide, she becomes convinced that he has somehow found a way to haunt and torment her from beyond the grave. Leigh Whannel (director of Upgrade, writer of Saw, and general all-time favourite of yours truly) directs the adaptation of the HG Wells novel of the same name, and the trailers promised a gruelling and very modern take on the classic tale, one that shifted the focus from The Invisible Man of the title to the people he torments.
Nothing haunts us like trauma – as all of the horror genre seems to be determined to remind us of in the last few years– and having the human representation of that trauma in the form of an abusive partner literally haunting our lead character is a reasonably simple jump to make.
But what elevates The Invisible Man above the standard-issue predictability of using horror as a metaphor through which to investigate the Big Issues is the commitment it has to Elisabeth Moss’ Cecilia. Life after abuse is a painfully difficult thing – we like to think of the simplicity of walking out and leaving it behind, but The Invisible Man has its lead haunted by the very un-supernatural horror of what she’s experienced. Moss is in bravura mode here, acting, for the most part, against the dead space that her tormentor takes up, or even sometimes against the ugly paranoia of her own traumatised mind. Whannel fills the screen with emptiness, a hint towards the truth of what it might contain, as well as the life that Cecilia is trying to build after her very identity was invaded and crushed by her abuser.
There’s basically nothing supernatural about the horror of this movie – in fact, the most terrifying sequence of the film is utterly grounded in reality, as Cecilia flees the house of her sleeping boyfriend. Before we even know anything about what has happened between them, it’s that raw, gut-clenching tension that comes from seeing her execute this desperate plan that really sticks. The film offers no forgiveness for Adrian (Oliver Jackson Cohen) – we don’t see any of the actual abuse that Cecilia suffers at his hands taking place with him on-screen, but we don’t need to. The Invisible Man trusts Cecilia with her truth, and the audience to believe it, even with Jackson-Cohen’s understated, apparently earnest performance, and his attempts to destabilise his own impact on Cecilia’s life.
As horror goes, The Invisible Man is one of deftest uses of the genre I’ve seen in years – Whannel, who also wrote the script, is deft and human and surprisingly un-showy here, allowing Moss’s performance and Cecilia’s traumatic past to define the feel of the film more than his own highly-stylised direction. The idea at the centre of it might not be a particularly ground-breaking one, but a commitment to telling that story in a compassionate way elevates it above gimmick territory and into something truly compelling.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via The Range)