There’s a reason so many horror movies center on female trauma: Because navigating life as a woman is already a horror story. Add a few monsters, a paranormal or science fiction twist, and suddenly it’s entertaining. But the baseline terror is already in place. To be a woman is to be silenced, belittled, humiliated, taunted, and undervalued on a daily basis. You learn to keep it bottled in. To pretend everything is okay. You learn to navigate the world under the guise of safety, when really you’re terrified all the time. So you make your pain invisible.
In Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, a classic horror tale is spun to reflect that invisible female trauma. Elisabeth Moss stars as Cecilia, who, in the film’s breathless opening sequence, flees the confines of her abusive partner Adrian’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) home. She tiptoes in a silk nightgown through the extravagant house, where large windows and reflective surfaces expose the house’s violent secrets to the empty grounds encasing it. She escapes in the knick of time, hopping into her sister’s car and zooming off just as Adrian emerges from his slumber and tracks her through the woods.
Cecilia doesn’t feel safe, even free from Adrian’s grasp. She hides away in the quaint home of her friend James (Aldis Hodge), a Bay Area cop and single dad to Sydney (Storm Reid). They comfort her, wrap her in normalcy, but years of abuse have made her paranoid; she can’t step outside without a stabbing panic, she worries that her laptop’s webcam will give away her location, and every knock at the door sends a chill to her core. Adrian, a successful expert in the field of optics, is a master manipulator. Cecilia doesn’t believe for a moment that he isn’t in control, or that he’s somehow unaware of her whereabouts. Abusive men like him see everything.
But then comes relief. Cecilia’s sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer) arrives at James’ one day with some bittersweet news: Adrian is dead by suicide. They visit his brother Tom (Michael Dorman) at his law office where Cecilia learns she’s inherited $5 million from Adrian’s estate—money she immediately puts into a fund for Sydney’s college. Finally, Cecilia can breathe, and can protect those she loves who couldn’t protect her. But even in death, Adrian’s got his hooks in her psyche. And soon, a series of mysterious events disrupt the news of his death. Cecilia comes to believe he’s not really dead, and used his optics technology to feign invisibility so that he might terrorize her still.
The Invisible Man is a hard watch for anyone who knows the perils of abuse, the intimacy of that affliction. Cecilia’s clear PTSD is manipulated by the unseen force that imparts havoc upon her; though the invisibility angle steers the movie into genre, it’s frightening realistic. Abuse is often an invisible trauma, something hiding in plain sight. Early in the film, when Cecilia reveals to James and Emily that Adrian hit her (“among other things”), they’re both shocked. This privileged, wealthy lifestyle they shared was tinged with blood; even the people who seem happiest suffer in silence.
That invisibility metaphor is brilliantly deployed in the film. Cecilia feels Adrian’s presence in James’ home, is assaulted by this unseen force, haunted by it. Her relationship with Emily is destroyed by an email sent from her account that she never wrote. Her proximity to Sydney is tested by a moment of violence. Her career prospects are foiled when her portfolio goes missing at a job interview. Cecilia is made to look like the crazy, hysterical one. And at times, we in the audience have to ask: Is there really an invisible man, or is this what psychosis does to abused women?
The beauty of horror films is that both can be true. And The Invisible Man has fun playing with our perception at every turn. Each rising action displaces Cecilia a little more, and us with her. At times, the horror foisted on her can be too much to bear. One late-in-the-game revelation feels both obvious and horrifically cruel. Orienting ourselves in Cecilia’s perspective is a harrowing experience. Her torment becomes ours.
It’s all sold by a truly stunning central performance from Elisabeth Moss, who has made a career of playing women under the influence of societal expectations, a blunt instrument of feminine pain. Her work in films like Her Smell and Queen of Earth, and on shows like Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, show her raw talent, but she’s something else here. A woman so maligned by a single man’s cruelty that she’s lost her ability to exist in the world. That’s a horrible, lonely thing to have to sell, and she makes Cecilia’s reality as unpleasant as it needs to be. It’s a performance that will likely go unnoticed come awards season, and what a shame. It’s some of her best work to date.
It’s appropriate that The Invisible Man is already getting slapped with the #MeToo label, but this isn’t a new or modern story. Look at the women’s pictures of the ’40s and ’50s and you’ll see the same thing. Domestic abuse and its annihilative qualities are timeless. But what writer/director Whannell has done is filter this violent fable through a familiar dressing. He took the basic premise of H.G. Wells’ novel and the Universal horror classic, and made them frightening in a brand new way. It’s what all horror remakes should aspire to be. One that brings dormant terror back to the surface—shedding visibility on the topics that lurk below the surface.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures