The Invisible Man Can’t Hide Its Hollow Clichés

Director: Leigh Whannell Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Oliver Jackson-Cohen Running Time: 124 minutes


Leigh Whannell is in the director’s seat for this modern adaptation of the 1897 sci-fi horror tale by H.G Wells. Whannell has had plenty of horror experience on screen, as a long time collaborator with James Wan. He’s also dipped his feat into directing with some impressive results. Insidious 3 was arguably the second best film of the series, and 2018’s Upgrade was well received by critics.


At a time when Ireland has just seen its first conviction for coercive control handed down in February of this year, it would be an understatement to say that the timing is appropriate to clear up narrow misconceptions about domestic abuse. It’s not always about physical abuse, nor is it exclusively about sexual harassment. Often, it’s a sociopathic lust for control. This is an aspect that The Invisible Man attempts to tap into, with limited success.

Leading the line on screen is Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, The Handmaid’s Tale), who brings the level of performance that this role demands. She plays Cecilia. Our introduction to Cecilia comes at her departure from her partner Adrian (Oliver Jackson Cohen). Immediately, her face does all the necessary acting. This continues throughout and is critical. We don’t see a lot of Adrian, so Moss needs to be more expressive, almost to vicariously show his cruelty and sociopathic nature. She needs to get out of her toxic relationship, and has hatched a plan to physically escape from Adrian. Whannell cleverly uses the environment to engross the audience with a sense of claustrophobia, even in spite of the spacious house in which Cecilia and Adrian appear to live. Credit where credit is due, but it’s undeniably an homage to Joseph Ruben’s Sleeping With the Enemy from 1991.


Cecilia gets out, and stays with her friend James and his daughter Storm. The two, along with Cecilia’s sister Harriet, provide the safety net for Cecilia to fall back on in her time of need. The support offered here, along with the shocking news that Adrian has apparently taken his own life, seems to suggest that all may be about to calm down for Cecilia, and that the horror of her abusive relationship may soon become nothing more than memory and legacy. However, after a few creepy and inexplicable events, Cecilia is led to believe that Adrian, though not visible, could still be lurking around, presenting a bigger threat than ever before.  As Cecilia becomes ever more paranoid about Adrian’s presence, and his effect on events around her personal life, this tests her social network. It puts a strain on her relationships and her ability to maintain her own sense of sanity. As increasingly threatening behaviour seems to literally appear out of thin air, Cecilia appears to be at the centre of her abusive boyfriend’s legacy but also at its fringes.


The Invisible Man grapples with a very real subject matter. The whole plot is steeped in the context of a toxic and manipulative relationship. It’s never quite revealed the extent to which Adrian was abusive to Cecilia. This lack of revelation has a mixed effect for this reviewer. Often with horror, the success of the craft is in the lack of expository information. There are no scenes that detail the horrific crimes that Adrian inflicts on our main character, and perhaps that’s the most frightening thing of all. It allows audiences to subjectively make up their own mind, to insert their own interpretation of what makes an abusive partner so terrifying. It could be as simple as a slightly off look, an unsettling light touch, or tone of voice.


However, because there is not much context given to the relationship, it’s difficult to get as invested as one would hope for. To make this relationship a horror story, a feat that Whannell appears to be going for here, it needed to give us some revelation into what made the character of Adrian so important to escape from. This is lacking here, and some early scenes provide a base level of insight, but through disappointingly bland and lazy parts of the script.


The Invisible Man is trying to do something. The horror is not exactly coming from Adrian himself, but the energy that he and his toxic, sociopathic traits represent. It’s a universal theme, and it makes sense to try to craft horror from it. The constant surveillance, the invasive sense of entitlement, the continuing need to put someone else down and make them feel small. We all know what it is, but the film doesn’t make the most out of the impending sense of dread that these coercive relationships can conjure up. To add to this, there are a number of cheap jump scares which are made more obnoxious by at times a formulaic high pitched score.


In this way, The Invisible Man suffers from the all too common paradox of not knowing what it wants to be. It wants to scare audiences, but it also wants to do so by using a relatable and atmospheric tension derived from real life terror. A textbook example of this was Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, which rewrote the book on this type of horror. Robert Egger’s The Witch did so too, although many audience members may have been disappointed by both these films, because they went in expecting popcorn clutching screams. The impressive success of those films was in part based on the fact that it demanded your attention without relying on genre stereotypes. Its subject matter was terrifying in itself, and it wanted to hit you on a cerebral level. The Invisible Man could have done this, without the need to lay it on thick with the inevitable lean towards conventions. But it didn’t do so, and for that reason, it lost a lot of the effect that it was capable of generating.


There’s no doubt that a wide audience exists for The Invisible Man. And it’s understandable to see why. Technically it’s well made, and performances, in particular from Elizabeth Moss, elevate it above what would otherwise be mid term fodder. Ultimately, it’s a step in the right direction for all involved, but a conservative one.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

About Ethan Shattock

Ethan is a popcorn-enthusiast who occasionally catches some films in between. Enjoying everything from the grandeur of the IFI, the intimacy of the Lighthouse to buzz of the small screens in the big city. Ethan has a taste for everything but tends to sink his teeth into horror in particular!

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