Sunday, March 1, 2020


Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man knows a monster movie is only as good as its metaphor. Thus it spins a gripping, upsetting, and satisfying chiller out of a great one. It starts with a woman (Elisabeth Moss) escaping an abusive relationship, her controlling boyfriend (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) so outraged at that prospect that, when he awakes to find her sneaking away in the middle of the night, he runs at the car and punches its window out. She just barely flees, and as she tries to recover a life for herself with the help of her sister (Harriet Dyer) and a friend (Aldis Hodge), she feels haunted by her poisonous relationship. The key to the film’s working so well is its grounding the psychology of these opening scenes. Selling the realism of the moment is a raw and open performance from Moss (drawing on her Mad Men poise and Handmaid's Tale despair) and tenterhooks prickling filmmaking from Whannell (veteran genre craftsman most recently of the gory good sci-fi actioner Upgrade). There's a deliberate pace, ice-cold cinematography often isolating her in the frame, amped-up sound design making every sudden noise a potential threat. It puts the audience in her headspace. This isn’t merely a pulp start; an entirely convincing realistic drama might be spun from these truthful, observant scenes of a woman readjusting after living under the thumb of a cruel, manipulative partner. The acting is rooted in precisely calibrated real-world horror. Her partner was already a monster before he’s even more of a monster. 

That the movie uses this sturdy, steady foundation for its central metaphor makes everything that follows all the more effective and suspenseful. A couple weeks after her escape, she hears that he’s killed himself. This should make her feel safer. At least, that’s what her support system tries to tell her. But she can’t shake the feeling that her abuser is around — a hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck sense that someone is watching. When it escalates to objects in the background suddenly moving — a gleaming knife slipping off that counter; a disembodied puff of breath on a cold porch — and then props in the foreground behaving strangely — an open door, a yanked sheet — it’s clear there’s something going on. And it’s even clearer that every little ghost-story style poltergeist activity is calibrated to make her appear crazy, to sow doubt in her support system, to isolate her and maintain her invisible abuser’s manipulative control over her life. It’s a haunting metaphor, and the undetectable, unpredictable effects of its monster’s actions make for truly unsettling negative space, and the most jolting of jump scares. As the movie springs its surprises, explaining its conceit, revealing new layers of horror, and paying off elements you won’t even realize were setups in the first place, Whannell takes great pleasure in playing the audience, twisting the knife with sudden shocks while dangling the possibility for catharsis. It’s an exceptionally well-crafted feat of genre fare, brilliantly reconfiguring H.G. Wells’ original idea via the recently buzzworded classic film Gaslight into a freshly creepy bit of horror filmmaking. It’s hugely entertaining with its chilly tension impressively sustained, while at its center is the painful story of a woman whose inside-out understanding of her ex’s evil is dangerously disbelieved.

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