Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man exchanges its source material’s commentary on isolation, accountability, and moral restraint for an exploration of domestic violence, specifically the practice of coercive control. It stars a twitchy, sunken-eyed Elizabeth Moss as Cecelia Kass and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as her abusive ex-boyfriend Adrian Griffin, a leading scientist in the field of optics who uses his technological prowess to stalk and terrorize Cecelia. The film’s modus operandi is similar to David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, the mere knowledge that an invisible antagonist exists in the world transforming all unoccupied space into a source of anxiety. Where It Follows benefits from a stylishly corroded rust belt visual palette and a dread-fueled soundtrack by digital artist Disasterpiece, though, The Invisible Man is held back by generically drab Blumhouse colors and Benjamin Walfisch’s unremarkable score.
This visual aversion to the dirty and the granular somewhat deadens the impact of Griffin’s modernist fortress of a house as a place of sterility, surveillance, and control opposed by the homey abode life of Cecelia’s childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). The film’s set dressing is impersonal at best, its spaces somewhat blurred as distinct settings. Generically fashionable furniture, loose sweaters and dark slacks. There’s a catalogue feel to so much of the film’s wardrobe, an aesthetic laziness that hampers both immersion in its narrative and the subtle characterization good costuming provides. The Invisible Man’s solid jump scares and patient, watchful camera make these visual concerns forgivable, but its overall effect remains diminished.
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The film’s material about society’s complicity in the brutal campaign of gaslighting Adrian wages against Cecelia is where the film simultaneously reaches farthest and reveals the limits of its vision. That society at large abets and enables patriarchal violence is hardly a shocking twist, and The Invisible Man has little to say about it which Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper didn’t say over a century earlier and with considerably more insight — but its images of coercion remain affecting nonetheless. When Cecelia writhes on the ground under the weight of an unseen attacker the effect is deeply uncomfortable, made intimate by Moss’s hysterical emoting but with no antagonist on which to focus. Every slap and shove comes from total concealment, as though dealt out by a wrathful God.
The scenes of Cecelia alone with Adrian in James’s house are the strongest in this respect, tapping into a rich vein of violent domestic actions — dishes breaking, furniture being overturned — occurring in a vacuum. In spite of a fascinating action sequence featuring a malfunctioning invisibility suit, the film’s later asylum sequence falls flat in its attempt to showcase the ways in which public institutions collaborate with violent men to oppress women. Whannell’s quiet, staid direction loses much of its appeal when he’s called upon to follow an active protagonist, and Moss in the role of empowered avenger feels stilted to say the least. The Invisible Man is a solid, suspenseful thriller with good bones and a strong cast, but its attempts at reaching beyond workaday competence are as ephemeral as its titular antagonist.