While Leigh Whannell’s previous feature Upgrade looked at the way technology removes our freedom and choice from us, sometimes quickly but more often than not slowly and without notice. His latest, an adaptation of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, similarly toys with its characters freedom but here the constricting forces are different. Be it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, self-doubt, toxic relationships or just fear, the causes are much more tangible and for that reason, much more terrifying.
When Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) leaves her possessive boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in the middle of the night she thinks her nightmare is over. Settling into a new life living with her sister Emily’s (Harriet Dyer) friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) she gets word that Adrian has died. When strange things start happening around her however, she starts to wonder if somehow it could all be a ruse or even worse, she might just be going crazy.
What proves most impressive about Whannell’s version, an impressive improvement over 2000’s upsettingly crass Hollowman, is the determined and precise direction. Not only does every scene serve a purpose but it fixes you in place by making you an active participant in deciphering each shot. The constant notion, that the empty is anything but makes simple empty spaces seem full, while equally alluding to Cecelia’s increased paranoia. The camera takes on the role of predator, strangely positioning the audience as her psychological attacker, a lingering notion that she is being watched. Whannell is both sympathetic and ravenous with his direction, wanting us to question her mindset but also think that it isn’t paranoia if they really are out to get you.
The film’s opening sequence, where Cecilia leaves the clean, empty excess of Adrian’s house fashions a feeling of constant unease with not only almost complete silence but the isolating emptiness. The dread Cecilia is fighting through is yours too, thanks to these two vitally important elements of our lives being stripped from hers. This ten-minute sequence says more than enough about her fractured state of mind, but equally gives her a fortitude that carries through this terror.
Sound plays an important part in not just Cecilia’s life but ours as well and oftentimes total silence can be more damaging than the sensory overload of the loud and bold. When the film is subdued and quiet, the voyeuristic quality of the film makes for a sickly, uncomfortable experience, an unpleasant feeling for enjoying watching this from the comfort of your seat. When the film gets louder and more twisted, the cornucopia of deep guttural noise and Benjamin Wallfisch’s intense score proves too much, a distracting force that sullies a thrilling but jarring final act.
What precedes this tonal shift however is a masterclass in character creation, with a symbiotic relationship between Moss and Whannell making Cecilia a memorable, lasting presence, one that will almost certainly make it onto any list of this decade’s best characters. While most of Cecilia’s conflict is internal, Moss translates it through a progressively less buttoned-up performance, one which requires impressive self-control. Moss’ often gruelling ability to swap from caring to manic gives her an unpredictable edge, where the surprises come from within, not from generic jump scares.
Although Whannell occasionally falls back on them, they feel earned thanks to exemplary build-up. Although the piercing noise of striking something in the dead of night seems expected, it proves no less traumatising. The almost sociopathic lens of the first act feeds off these little spikes in adrenaline but it loses that bite as the pace and tone of the film shifts. The issue here is how Whannell changes perspective, not only for himself but for the audience. Our move from participant to spectator means our prying eyes have less of an impact on the course of the film and because of that, the horrors seem more manageable, less impactful and unfortunately, less real.
If it wasn’t for this The Invisible Man would be a near-perfect film. I guess Whannell and Moss and the rest of the people involved in making this inventive and pulse-pounding tale will have to settle for being simply marvellous.