Invisible man stories have been around forever, going back as far as Plato’s treatise on government, The Republic. In that book, Plato’s teacher and main character Socrates listens to his chief interlocutor Glaucon tell the story of “The Ring of Gyges,” about a ring that allows its wearer to turn invisible (stop me if you heard that one before, Frodo). Convinced that he will suffer no consequences because he cannot be seen, the man goes on a rampage, thus proving (to Glaucon, anyway) that society keeps people from going bad.
Most invisible man stories have taken a similar approach. The 1897 H.G. Wells novel follows a scientist called Griffin who revels in his ability to terrorize an English village without censure. Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) of the 1933 film adaptation by James Whale declares that he can “rob, wreck, and kill!” Mad scientist Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) does all of those things in graphic detail in Paul Verhoeven’s 2000 take Hollow Man.
But Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the titular villain of Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, is even more insidious. This Griffin does what he wants because even before he develops an invisible suit, not because police cannot see him — but because his gender, wealth, and race mean that police will not look for him.
Whannell demonstrates this power with a tense opening sequence that follows Adrian’s girlfriend Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) as she escapes from his sea-side home/fortress. Even though we know that Adrian is asleep in his bed, Cecilia’s cautious movements and glances remind us that his presence is everywhere. Cameras track her every move. A creaky floor or door could wake Adrian. Even a kind act for a pet dog nearly derails the entire plan.
With the help of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), Cecilia leaves Adrian and stays with family friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teen daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Even out of his house, Cecilia still feels watched by her abuser, until she learns that Adrian has committed suicide. With that news comes also the revelation that Adrian has left comes also a will that bequeaths a fortune upon her, as long as she is mentally sound and commits no crime.
What follows is 90 minutes of mental torture, as Cecilia’s attempts to move on with her life are stymied by not just memories of Adrian’s abuse, but evidence of his continued control. Some of these reminders can be easily explained, such as contact from Adrian’s brother Thomas (Michael Dorman), whose job as executor allows him to repeat the conditions on Cecilia. Other reminders are more tricky, such as the footprints she sees on a blanket in her room or a bottle left at Adrian’s house ending up on her nightstand.
Unlike most invisible man stories, Whannell’s movie isn’t interested in showing us a person gone mad. Instead, it focuses on that person’s victim, on how he weaponizes not only his unusual power but also misogynist social forces. Emily and James do not just ignore Cecilia’s claims that Adrian invisibly stalks her; they actually blame her for not doing enough to free herself. “If you’re too stupid to tell who your real friends and too weak to walk away from your enemies, I can help you,” an angry Emily tells her in perhaps the movie’s cruelest scene.
As a woman rejected by those who she needs most, Moss joins the ranks of Toni Collette and Lupita N’yongo in giving a desperate, raw performance as a horror lead. Even as her shoulder’s slump in defeat and her body shakes with fear, Moss arms Cecilia with flinty and focused eyes, holding to a truth others refuse to accept. Coming off a tremendous taciturn role in last year’s Clemency, Hodge brings a supportive and comforting quality to James, which only compounds the terror when he too fails to believe Cecilia.
But we viewers always believe her, thanks to Whannell’s filmmaking skill. Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio move their camera slowly, holding it on spaces that appear empty. They let it creep past open hallways and not-quite-closed doors, reminding us that Adrian is there even when he’s not there. We tense with anxiety every time Cecilia forgets to look over her shoulder, and we feel no relief when she actually glances because we know that she’s never really safe.
In most cases, the scares are so well-staged and the emotional beats so true that we don’t notice the movie’s sometimes shoddy plotting. We’re not really bothered by the existence of the world’s most helpful Lyft driver when we just want Cecilia to escape. But its harder to ignore those problems when they turn us against Cecilia. In particular, an otherwise standout sequence involving prison guards requires so much inaction from Cecilia that we actually get annoyed that she won’t help herself.
Fortunately, Whannell commits few of these missteps. Most of the time, The Invisible Man keeps us focused on Cecilia’s suffering. As we share in her terror and suffering, we believe her. And we believe that society allows a bad man to flaunt his power, because it refuses to look at his sins.