The Invisible Man (2020)

Dir. Leigh Whannell. Starring Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Michael Dorman

Metacritic’s compilation of year-end critics’ lists tells us that Time, Garrett Bradley’s documentary, ranks as the thirteenth most-noted film of the year. (They do some math, which you can read through for yourself.) The Invisible Man is fourteenth. I think it’s appropriate that both of those are nestled together that way, because they are very much like movies. Both of them are about something important. Time uses the story of a family broken apart by a husband and father kept in prison for decades as a way to get at the outlandish cruelty of our penal system. The Invisible Man riffs on a horror story twelve decades old in order to consider abusive relationships and gaslighting. Neither one of is really a good movie, though, and that’s what makes them an interesting pair. It’s impossible to deny how compelling Sibil Fox Richardson is, and it’s difficult not to like her go-getting kids, and I think you’d have to be a little depraved not to be livid about the situation the government put Rob in. On the other hand…it is a good movie, or does it just use black-and-white photography, close-ups, and Dutch angles? The Richardsons don’t need Time to matter, and the film does not make them more compelling than they would be if they were featured on This American Life or in a New York Times feature. The last couple minutes have some panache, I’ll grant, but unless a good story makes a great film, I cannot understand how Time is a great film.

The Invisible Man is interesting because it certainly seems like it’s getting that Time treatment. (This is definitely a problem people have with documentaries; I think it’d be just as easy to level the charge of “important but not particularly good as a film” at recent favorites as diverse as Knock Down the House or Crip Camp. That The Invisible Man, which is obviously not a documentary, is getting this kind of shine makes it an interesting film to talk about regardless of its quality.) The film has a pretty standard Elisabeth Moss performance and some okay work from Aldis Hodge. It happens to be about gaslighting, a term on everyone’s tongues throughout the Trump presidency—I really don’t think that the second-wave feminists meant for “the personal is political” to mean what it meant to a lot of liberal Twitter users—but was it a good movie? If a movie is about something important, that means the movie might be important. Whether or not it’s good is an entirely different question, and the praise for The Invisible Man is absolutely baffling to me unless one’s entire aim is to give some kudos to a movie which recognizes that men are bad to women. Given that this summarizes a plurality of horror movies, I don’t know what I’m supposed to find particularly special about the way The Invisible Man foregrounds abusive men and their supporters. 

The film begins with Cecilia’s (Moss) almost silent escape from Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer) picks up Cecilia outside the walls of Adrian’s estate, although the “almost silent” thing comes back to bite the passenger window of Emily’s car. A clumsy motion set off the car alarm in the garage; Emily has decided she wants to know what’s going on more than she wants to drive and talk; Adrian puts his fist through the window. Such is his will to dominate Cecilia that even a report of his death doesn’t really convince her that she’s safe, although everyone else in her life seems to find that report, and the money that she’s been left in Adrian’s will, fairly gratifying. Then someone invisible starts doing stuff that only serves to make Cecilia look increasingly unstable. The invisible fellow takes the covers off of Cecilia and Sydney (Storm Reid) and then stands on them, leaving feet shapes in the blanket, and then disappears, as it were, once Sydney’s father James (Hodge) comes in. The rest of what he does is less mischief night and more “physical confrontation” or “stabby.” There’s some stabbing. There’s beating. There’s dragging people around on the floor and hitting them. What this turns into, of course, is some very actorly showcases for Elisabeth Moss and Aldis Hodge, who you just know had to do something exercises in their acting classes like this once upon a time. It is not frightening. I guess that goes without saying given the prestige horror label, the way this film’s final scene aligns with the final shots of Midsommar down to the head-on looks at Moss and Florence Pugh.

Anyway, those scenes can maybe reach the level of disturbing because of the abuse that the bad man in the invisibility suit is dishing out, but these scenes lack two elements that would make someone frightened, or just more disturbed. First, part of the reason scary people are scary is because they look scary. Perhaps it’s the way that Claude Rains looks uncanny in the original Invisible Man from 1933, or, just to choose a “guy beats people up and is frightening” example at random, because Ray Liotta looks like an absolute madman at the end of Something Wild. There is nothing to look scary here, and so we’re left with everyone doing some Acting 102 physical performances. Second, something invisible sweeping these people around means that we’re constantly reacting to what’s on screen instead of anticipating it. When the moment comes and the invisible man starts doing this ugly stuff to Cecilia or beats the bejeezus out of James, we’re stuck reacting. Horror, as I used to understand it, was about anticipation. The fear of what might happen is far worse than the fear of what is actually happening. There’s almost a relief watching Arbogast tumble down those stairs after the terror of watching Mrs. Bates coolly stride in from the right side of the screen, but it’s that stride which is the terror, not the initial appearance and not the stabbing. An invisible man, you’d think, would be the height of anticipation, but just as his advantage in hand-to-hand combat is that no one knows where to look for him, the same is true for the moviegoer. The Invisible Man is less a horror movie than an action movie, and if we judge this film on the action alone, well, then I guess we just need to pat everyone on the back from director Whannell and composer Benjamin Wallfisch and say “You tried.”

The Invisible Man is about gaslighting…probably. Everyone tells her Adrian is dead even though he isn’t really dead. This is the primary function of Tom (Dorman), Adrian’s brother and the executor of his will. Tom knows perfectly well that Adrian isn’t dead, but just as his brother did in life (unseen, I’ll add), Tom goes out of his way to lie to and manipulate Cecilia so it seems like she’s out of her mind. The threat of the movie, though, is physical, not mental. Cecilia’s going crazy, fine, but she’s in enormous physical danger, just like James and Sydney are, and her physical liberty is restrained once she’s pinned for a murder herself. It’s a movie where only she can see what the truth is, but what, is everyone else supposed to believe that her certified dead ex-boyfriend is alive and invisible? The terror in that scenario is less “No one believes me” but “No one believes me even though I am just as credible as the person they choose to believe instead.” In movies about gaslighting, hey, how about the existential horror of Gaslight, in which there is physical proof in the gas light itself which shows that Paula is not actually crazy and yet the world condescends to believe in her “nerves.” Or in horror movies about gaslighting, you could look to Rosemary’s Baby, where Guy looks the other way and dismisses Rosemary’s concerns because it benefits him to put her into the spin cycle; the film adds extra layers of meaning because of the general mistrust physicians have for women reporting the symptoms of their own bodies, a kind of real-life horror extremely common into the present day. Compared to that, what is The Invisible Man besides a story about someone with a bad boyfriend who happens to be richer than God and have a similar power to defy the laws of physics.

This film is a tiresome movie which belongs to a tiresome trend, this idea that something is more interesting or worthwhile if it can add some genre tag to what would probably be a more engaging story on its own terms. It’s why Gaslight runs rings around this movie, just as Three Colors: Blue is a film about grief orders of magnitude better than Hereditary or Sound of Metal is a film about being deaf which blows away A Quiet Place. If your dissertation about gaslighting or bad men needs a guy running around in an invisibility suit made of little cameras, it’s possible that your movie about gaslighting or bad men may not have legs on its own! Let subtext be subtext. Bring back fear.

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