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Leigh Wannell’s new film tells H.G. Wells’s classic story from the perspective of the victim, for once, turning it into a thriller about present-day misogyny and gaslighting that is at times clever, and at others predictable

Universal/Ringer illustration

The word that recurs throughout Leigh Whannell’s remake-slash-update of The Invisible Man, wielded by various characters as a warning and a weapon, is “surprise.” It’s as good a mantra as any for a thriller whose mandate is to startle its audience with surface-level shocks while simultaneously subverting expectations in a deeper way, dropping us out of our comfort zone toward some sunken place.

On the first point, Whannell’s film works like gangbusters, melding the lingering creepiness of H.G. Wells’s literary premise—what if a mad scientist could act undetected against his enemies?—with the visual language of 21st-century horror hits like Paranormal Activity, using negative space and a lack of action to torque and tighten audience anxieties to the breaking point. As for the script’s apparent masterstroke of switching focus from the title figure to his victim—in this case, a woman whose possessive ex-boyfriend uses his invisibility to gaslight her—it’s at once effective and frustratingly under-realized, swapping out some of its most disturbing imagery and implications at the halfway point for more conventional revenge-movie satisfactions.

In a strange pattern that probably says something about genre cinema’s tendency to feature more gripping setups than fully satisfying payoffs, The Invisible Man joins Jordan Peele’s Us and Ari Aster’s Midsommar as movies that arguably peak in their opening sequences. Over the course of 10 nearly wordless minutes, we watch as Elisabeth Moss’s Cecilia engineers an escape from her sleeping husband’s high-tech coastal California estate, a remote fortress seemingly built by the same firm that did the Parks’ mansion in Parasite, or Neil Patrick Harris’s palatial digs in Gone Girl (a better point of reference). Cecilia is, evidently, a kept woman, and the care she takes to cover her tracks as she slips out in the dead of night shows how she’s deeply internalized the daily surveillance of her existence; without any dialogue and moving speedily through Whannell’s expertly composed widescreen frames, Moss conveys a mix of desperate resolve and queasy guilt, as well as a resigned doubt that she’ll actually make it. Picked up off a country road in the dead of night by her bewildered sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), she’s ostensibly on her way to start a new life, but Moss’s haunted features suggest that any new beginning will be built on shaky foundations.

It’s obvious from the get-go that Whannell is patterning his script on domestic horror movies like Sleeping With the Enemy, and for a while, the playful predictability of the storytelling offers its own form of elation. Relocated to San Francisco (the most paranoid of cities thanks to movies like Vertigo, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Zodiac) and holed up with Cecilia’s cop friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his college-bound daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), Cecilia harbors justifiable fears that Adrian will find her hiding place. Subsequent news that he’s been found dead by his own hand serves only to confirm that he’s got something up his sleeve, even if it’s from beyond the grave.

This early-ish section of The Invisible Man, which shows Cecilia trying to rebuild her life while suffering fleeting, hair-on-her-neck feelings that she’s being observed, is pressurized because of the hypothetical ambiguity about what’s really going on—whether the cause of her anxiety is a poltergeist, a memory, or Adrian in some kind of man-who-wasn’t-there disguise. In a way, it’s a shame that Whannell decided to work explicitly with the title and iconography (though obviously not the plot) of Wells’s novel, since it removes any real sense of ambiguity; in return for this sacrifice, though, The Invisible Man plays skillfully with our knowledge—and terror—that Cecilia is never actually alone. Whannell’s ability to not only compose shots that allow for the possibility of an unseen presence but then move the camera in ways that activate screen space displays the directorial chops that were obvious in his gory sci-fi thriller Upgrade. Despite its low budget, this is a beautifully made movie, nicely blocked and sculpturally lit in ways that allow a little bit of CGI to go a long way. At least one subtle, blink-or-miss-it scare proceeds to the hall of fame: an image of Cecilia taking a long, deep breath on the porch, her exhalation visible in the night air and then doubled a few inches from her head by whoever is standing imperceptibly beside her.

Considering her recent track record of embodying extreme abjection—from the dystopian survivor in The Handmaid’s Tale to the self-destructive rock star of Her Smell—Moss is ideally cast as a character trapped on a psychological arc of steep, precipitous decline. Once Adrian is inside Cecilia’s head, she falls apart, and not unconsciously either. “This is what he does,” she tells James, and if it’s a bit hard to believe that her friends and loved ones wouldn’t suspect that something is up given what they know of her abusive marriage—and also the not unimportant detail that Adrian was some kind of visionary in the field of “optics,” hint hint—the script makes trenchant points about how Cecilia’s trauma only makes her more unreliable, even to sympathetic eyes. There’s also the acuity of the cruelty that Adrian is practicing behind his veil of impunity, from (apparently) sending his attorney brother (Michael Dorman) to twist the knife through legal complications to a methodically modernized form of gaslighting involving malevolent emails and text messages—territory that the French director Olivier Assayas touched on in his excellent (and more authentically supernatural) Personal Shopper.

In 2000’s Hollow Man, itself a play on Wells, Paul Verhoeven sought, in a way that can only be described as “on brand,” to get inside this cruelty. After figuring out how to disappear completely, Kevin Bacon’s antihero experiences delusions of grandeur, and the film’s camerawork and staging makes us complicit in his vicarious fantasies. The Invisible Man isn’t going for anything quite so insidious, though. By building its namesake into such a despicable villain, both as an individual and in terms of omnipresent, all-powerful toxic masculinity—the invisible hand of patriarchy, as it were—The Invisible Man works as the inverse of Hollow Man. We’re never to know Adrian directly, only to understand him through the prism of Cecilia’s hatred. That’s an easier proposition for an audience, and as good as Moss is at keeping us engaged, there comes a point at which the narrative machinery takes over and the rich, suggestive undertones give way to crowd-pleasing beats—of trying to wrap up the story instead of leaving its threads disconcertedly dangling.

There’s something to be said for catharsis, of course: that’s why Peele revamped the ending of Get Out so that the title became a prophecy fulfilled instead of an ironic commentary on entrapment. The cheers that emanated from the audience at the screening of The Invisible Woman I attended reminded me of the ones during Get Out, and in a moment when so much viewership has become dutiful and detached, a movie capable of whipping spectators into a righteous frenzy shouldn’t be discounted outright.

At its best, horror works as the most affecting genre, turning viewers into extensions of its terrified characters. We scream because they do. With this in mind, Moss’s bruised, wide-eyed visage serves as a pretty apt mirror of our own for most of The Invisible Man—it works us over with the same shrewd manipulations as its villain. But when Cecilia reemerges in the home stretch strategically glammed up and in control—a transformation that Moss makes credible in the context of the script’s final twists—it’s a little too obvious that we’re supposed to take the glow-up as a figurative, triumphant rebuke to misogyny that, once made visible, can be conquered in some comprehensive way. In the story, the fastidious tidiness of Cecilia’s vengeance is fun, and appropriate as a “fuck you” to Adrian’s sociopathic neat-freakery; in terms of reckoning with the world outside the frame, though, it’s not just tidy—it’s sterile. The pleasant revelation of The Invisible Man is how well it works on a scene-to-scene, scare-to-scare basis; what’s a bit disappointing is how minor its resonance beyond the frame feels. It’s a movie that works hard to make us feel bad before making sure that we feel good. No surprises after all.