“I see you.”
This simple statement of fact might be the most powerful and the most dangerous thing an abuse victim can say to their abuser. Because abusers operate in the dark, away from prying eyes, twisting their own warped reality into the truth. Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) shouts “I see you” to a seemingly empty room. And although it comes at her lowest moment, the declaration is the first step on her road to redemption in Leigh Whannell’s inventive and utterly riveting twist on “The Invisible Man.”
To reinvent H.G. Wells’ 1897 story, which is best known as the 1933 James Whale classic horror film, Whannell has flipped the notion of invisibility. In this take, invisibility is no superpower, and no affliction, like the bandage-wrapped Claude Rains, but rather, it’s a threat. In his script, Whannell centers a woman, Cecilia, as the target of the invisible man, who is her abusive, vindictive tech mogul partner, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). And she tries desperately to escape from him, running away in the middle of the night from his fortified oceanside mansion outside San Francisco, seeking shelter with friends and family.
Nervous Cecilia is afraid to leave the safe house with friends, convinced that Adrian will find her, until word arrives of his suicide. That’s when things really start to get weird. Knives disappear, mysterious kitchen fires start, floorboards creak, and blankets creep in the middle of the night. It’s all so mundane until it isn’t. But by that point, Cecilia’s friends James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) are disturbed by her erratic behavior. And her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), is furious at a cruel e-mail she’s received from her.
The one thing that remains steadfast is Cecilia’s belief that Adrian (or his ghost) is stalking her. She knows her abuser and his patterns too well. She knows that in death, as in life, he will seek to gaslight, isolate and indict her in her own breakdown. What also remains steadfast is the film’s own belief in Cecilia. From the outset, Whannell establishes unmotivated camera movements and compositions that lurk menacingly or draw attention to big empty corners in the room. We see the footprints and the puffs of breath in cold air; we see the violent force that brutally batters her. In a film where almost no one buys Cecilia’s outlandish claims, the directorial point of view Whannell establishes never wavers in its belief in her.
Working with a cool, gray palette allows Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio’s camerawork to remain at the forefront of their visual storytelling, underlined by an anxiety-producing score composed by Benjamin Wallfisch. The camera reveals the treachery of the environment in the most subtle of ways: focusing on an empty corner rather than her unbelievable testimony, or a unique, body-mounted shot of Cecilia collapsing.
At the center of the immaculately crafted film is Moss, who gives a virtuosic leading performance as the twitchy, terrified and tentative Cecilia. She shouts at the specter of Adrian, “Why me? You could have had anything. You’ve taken it all.” With devastating specificity and empathy for his heroine, Whannell has inverted the invisible man archetype into an incredibly tense and suspenseful thriller exploring the psychological horror of intimate partner abuse. It shouldn’t feel radical that he lets us believe Cecilia, but in doing so, he makes “The Invisible Man” all the more potent a fable.