In the riveting first scene of writer/director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, Cecilia (played by Elisabeth Moss) is making an escape. As her boyfriend sleeps deeply, she makes a late-night dash through his lavish apartment, putting together all her things and carefully making an exit from a home that is clearly her prison. Sometime later, Cecilia, mentally scarred but alive, is informed that her monstrous ex has taken his life and left her with a fortune. Not long after that, she becomes convinced that he isn’t dead but invisible and still finding ways to control and torture her.
Former “Mad Men” star Moss isn’t slumming it in a B-movie; in fact, the film rises to the level of her performance and matches her intensity. She is currently playing the role of June in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” one of the best shows on television. June and Cecilia are both escapees from horrendously abusive men and have a frame of mind that has been damaged by what they survived. It’s interesting that Moss is kind of typecast here, but fine – she’s so good, I can’t imagine the film working as well without her. This (and not her stand-out turn in last year’s forgettable mob turkey, The Kitchen) is her breakthrough film role.
What the first act suggests is that Cecilia might be losing her mind or that the presence she feels is supernatural. What’s unfortunate and maddening is that the trailers for this movie saw fit to ruin the surprise, spell out exactly what’s in store for the third act, and give away many of the film’s best surprises. While The Invisible Man is worth seeing in spite of the trailer and is so much better than the coming attractions previews suggested, it is unfortunate that the marketing department decided to mostly sum up a great movie in a two-and-a-half-minute spot. This has been a Hollywood staple for 20 years, as the let’s-give-everything-away preview for What Lies Beneath began the trend of trailers that tell audiences what to expect. Why? According to a nameless studio executive, film patrons like to know exactly what they’re in for. Spoiling a great movie with a tell-all trailer was as insipid an idea then as it is now.
To avoid any spoilers, I won’t describe the role played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, only to say he’s terrific and I found him spellbinding during a dinner scene he shares with Moss. I also enjoyed the score by Benjamin Wallfisch, with its eerie ambience and sudden explosions of noise.
In the age of rampant stalking, cyber-bullying, shaming others with damning photos, and character assassination through social media, the movie is using its premise as a metaphor for the horror of the world we live in now. With anonymous online bullying a recurring problem, the most powerful quality these monsters have is their ability to remain invisible. Anyone who has had a stalker or an abusive ex, or is stuck in a relationship with a controlling significant other will connect with the psychological state of Moss’ character.
Although filmed digitally and on a low budget, it has opulent settings and striking set design. Why, then, is it presented in an ugly blue hue? This could have been a visually beautiful film, if only someone had taken the blue filter off the camera. While I like how the specific details of Cecilia’s tortured relationship with her captor are kept vague, there are supporting characters and relationships that needed better definition.
If Whannell (a co-creator of Saw and other recent genre hits) is a better filmmaker than a writer, he still displays a firm grip on tone, performance, and his ability to build suspense. The Invisible Man feels in some ways like a response to Paul Verhoeven’s nasty, exploitative, and chauvinist Hollow Man from 20 years ago; I love Verhoeven’s work but that film celebrated the dark, unhinged side of its vile invisible antagonist, whereas here, we’re on the side of the victim from scene one. It’s a telling contrast and a necessary one. I really dug Whannell’s film as a skillfully crafted entertainment but it’s also a strong commentary on why “invisible” men are the most harmful and prevalent monsters.
Three and a half Stars
Rated R/124 Min.