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Out of sight – ‘The Invisible Man’

March 3, 2020
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It’s one of the most traditional truisms in horror cinema: sometimes the biggest scares come from what you don’t see.

“The Invisible Man” – written and directed by Leigh Whannell – takes that notion to heart both literally and figuratively. It is a daring and inspired take on the classic tale, one that captures the unsettling energy of the classic character while also viewing it through a different lens. That shift in perspective – from the terrorizer to the terrorized – results in a thought-provoking and compelling experience.

This film marks the first revisiting of Universal’s classic movie monsters since the aborted “Dark Universe” experiment began and ended with 2017’s abysmal “The Mummy.” The studio pivoted to a different idea, one that focuses more on the characters rather than worrying about a shared universe. It’s a smart play, made all the smarter by teaming up with genre producer extraordinaire Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions.

In the end, what we get is a film guided by an auteur’s singular vision and headlined by an absolutely dynamite lead performer. It is smart and evocative and scary as hell.

(Note: There’s a real chance that survivors of abuse will find many aspects of this movie triggering. Be aware.)

Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss, TV’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”) is looking for a way out. She’s trapped in an abusive relationship with a controlling partner, a brilliant optics scientist named Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, TV’s “The Haunting of Hill House”). One night, she finally executes her escape plan, fleeing Adrian’s compound and making her way to the road, where she’s met by her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer, TV’s “The InBetween”); she barely escapes Adrian’s violence.

Cecilia holes up with her friend James (Aldis Hodge, “Clemency”), a San Francisco police detective, and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid, TV’s “Euphoria”). She’s terrified to even step outside, convinced that Adrian will track her down and punish her for leaving him.

Everything changes when Emily shows up with some news – Adrian is gone, dead by his own hand. Surprisingly, Adrian’s brother Tom (Michael Dorman, TV’s “For All Mankind”) reaches out; he’s serving as the executor of Adrian’s estate and there’s something for Cecilia. Specifically, he’s left her $5 million, payable at $100,000 per month for the next four years or so … so long as she stays out of legal trouble and remains mentally competent.

But it isn’t long before things start to get … strange. Weird and sinister happenings begin to befall Cecilia, events that simply can’t be explained … unless Adrian is somehow still alive. Despite Cecilia’s insistence, no one believes her claims that Adrian is behind the strangeness that surrounds her – particularly when she comes to believe that he has somehow figured out how to become invisible.

It’s subtle at first, small things that are easily explained away, but it escalates. Her unseen antagonist is finding ways to isolate her from her allies, to convince the world that she is crazy and dangerous. Cecilia realizes that she is in a fight for her life – a fight against an opponent that no one can see and no one else believes even exists.

“The Invisible Man” is a smart and frightening take on a classic tale. The best remakes are ones that can capture the essence of the source material while also creating something new. Whannell and company definitely do just that; by focusing the action not on the monstrous title character, but that character’s victim, a whole new world of socially conscious scares opens up. Using this character to comment on abusive relationships and the tactics abusers use to maintain them – gaslighting and control, fear and violence – is a masterstroke, a brilliant choice that turns a good movie into a great one.

Of course, what a horror movie needs to be first and foremost is scary; all the complex ideas in the world don’t really matter if the film doesn’t engage in that way. Again, having Whannell at the helm is key – the Australian auteur has shown a knack for genre execution on a budget, creating sharp and thoughtful fare that succeeds on multiple levels. This latest offering is no different – truly an inspired take. The way he subverts our expectations and weaponizes horror conventions is marvelous, generating tension as he surprises us with what happens … and what doesn’t.

It doesn’t hurt that Elisabeth Moss is in peak form. Seriously – there are only a handful of actresses capable of bringing the unique energy and emotional weight to the screen that Moss does. She has perhaps the most communicative eyes in Hollywood, able to convey incredible depth of thought without saying a word. Throw in her absolute fearlessness and you get the ideal candidate for the physical and mental challenges of a role like this one. She’s impressive as hell.

The rest of the cast is strong as well. Dyer brings the proper amount of sister energy. Hodge breathes life into a character who could have been a plot device. Reid has a couple of wonderful scenes. Dorman strikes just the right notes of inferiority as the man still struggling with the long shadow cast by his brother. And Jackson-Cohen – while only in a handful of scenes – does good work in evoking the vicious narcissism of the abuser.

“The Invisible Man” is horror filmmaking of the finest kind, striking that balance between social commentary and scares that marks the very best examples of the form. It is a smart, self-aware work that is both frightening and provocative, an of-the-moment work of art that exquisitely updates a genre classic.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 March 2020 07:43

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