Aided by elemental forces, her exquisitely wealthy boyfriend’s Silicon Valley house always blanketed by the deafening crash of ocean waves, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) softly pads her way out of bed, through the high-tech laboratory and the Tesla-filled garage, across the vast lawn, over the wall of his compound and into the car of her sister (Harriet Dyer). Two masterfully wielded jump scares accompany her escape, one harmless and the other brutal; within this breathless opening, Leigh Whannell both charts the geography of crucial plot points to come—it’s important we know about this house—and sets the tone of the trauma under which Cecilia will labor for the rest of the film. We wonder: Why would she run like this if she weren’t abused? Why would she have a secret compartment in their closet where she can stow an away bag? Then Cecilia’s boyfriend appears next to the car and punches in its window.
His name is Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the surname, along with the main character’s penchant for violence, a key indicator of the movie’s debt to both H.G. Wells and James Whale. According to Cecilia, Adrian made a fortune as a leading figure in “optics” (OPTICS!) and met the self-described “suburban girl” at a party a few years before. Never one to be subtle with his themes, Whannell has his villain be a genius in the technology of “seeing,” in how we see, to update the Universal Monster story to embrace digital technology as our primary mode of modern sight. Surveillance cameras limn every inch of Adrian’s home; later he’ll use a simple email to ruin Cecilia’s relationship with her sister. He has the money and resources to peer into any corner of Cecilia’s life. His gaze is unbroken.
Cecilia spends the next two weeks in hiding, doing her best to live at her friend James’s (Aldis Hodge) house with his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) and with the terror that Adrian will show up any minute. Even when his brother Tom (Michael Dorman) tells Cecilia that Adrian died of suicide, and that he left her $5M to be paid out in monthly installments (should she not commit a crime, become mentally unstable, etc.), she can’t quite accept that she’s safe. “This is what he does,” she tells anyone and everyone. Still, she buys James a ladder and gives Sydney all the money she’ll need to go to college, which is great. What’s not great is the night Cecilia encounters what seems to be an invisible person standing on her bedsheet. Knowing that her recently deceased ex-boyfriend is a world-leading mind in the field of OPTICS, she pretty efficiently surmises that he is not dead. And that he has made himself invisible. And that he is probably really pissed off.
Adrian is a psychopath, and the movie quickly proves as much, but unlike previous iterations of the Invisible Man story, he isn’t driven mad by the chemicals that make him invisible (as in James Whale’s 1933 version), nor is he pushed to Ubermensch levels of depravity by his new power (see Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man). He’s just a tech bro, maybe corrupted by his wealth, though it’s more likely he’s always been this way. As Tom explains to Cecilia—because the movie needs to remind us repeatedly why someone like him would want someone like her—no one has ever left him. That’s why he needs her: because he can’t have her. Is Adrian toxically masculine because of all the success in his life, or did his toxic masculinity (nature and nurtured) convince him he deserved all that success? It really doesn’t matter (none of this matters); the Invisible Man needs to be a piece of shit, and Whannell knows that it makes a lot more sense to just have this guy be a piece of shit all along. Imagine Johnny Depp in this role.
Or don’t. You’re welcome to do what you want with your time. Johnny Depp’s Invisible Man, the Dark Universe installment we were promised until as recently as early 2019, would have been what Tom Cruise’s The Mummy was, a story of redemption, of men becoming monsters but refusing to let go of their manliness. We have no reason to trust that amidst this, our collective hellscape polluted by endless clouds of pop culture detritus, a Johnny Depp Invisible Man movie would be anything else. It would have sucked ass. Whannell’s The Invisible Man is something so much bleaker. It’s not about the man no one can see but about how it feels to be seen—to be watched, constantly. No one in the film says the word “gaslighting,” though that’s what’s going on, and the abuse is harrowing to watch. What Cecilia’s experiencing is something she can share with the audience, too. The weight of obsessive surveillance presses in on all of us.
In James Whale’s original, the “Invisible One” (Claude Rains) promises Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan) that, no matter where he goes or how far he runs, he’ll find and kill him the following night. Cecilia knows that Adrian will always find her, too, and The Invisible Man is rife with the abject terror of such vulnerability. Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio have a knack for letting their frames linger with space, drawing our attention to where we, and Cecilia, know an unseen danger lurks. Of course, we’re always betrayed: Corners of rooms and silhouette-less doorways aren’t empty, aren’t negative, but pregnant with assumption—until they aren’t, the invisible man never precisely where we expect him to be. We begin to doubt ourselves; we’re punished by tension, and we feel like we deserve it.
It’s all pretty marvelous stuff, as much a well-oiled genre machine as it is a respite from big studio bloat, a flick more decidedly horror than any version before and yet another showcase for Elisabeth Moss’s herculean prowess. Much is asked of her, but rather than plunge too deeply into any of Cecilia’s extremes—as given to hysteria as much as to silence—she finds balance between vulnerability and defiance, unshackling the Invisible Man story from so many previous versions and expectations while still coming out, Final Girl bonafides beaming, on top. Whannell wouldn’t dare resist indulging in a few finely tuned action set pieces and some delirious blood spatter, because this is what we expect of him, but Whannell’s more devious brilliance lies in how easily he can toy with those expectations. Adrian claims that only he truly knows Cecilia; Whannell might say the same for us.
Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman
Release Date: February 29, 2020
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.