Why Leigh Whannell’s ‘Invisible Man’ Is the Perfect Modern-Day Monster

     February 28, 2020

elisabeth-moss-the-invisible-man-slice*Light spoilers for The Invisible Man to follow*

“An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go.”

– Claude Rains as Dr. Jack Griffin, The Invisible Man (1933) 

I have anxiety. Not the “natural” kind that comes with bills or public speaking, but the kind where a doctor looks you dead-ass in the face and says your brain is just gonna’ be terrified sometimes, for no reason. This isn’t a fun way to start to piece about a new Universal Monsters movie, but it is, ironically, one of the only lenses through which you can really see The Invisible Man. Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Upgrade), The Invisible Man is a modern-day update on the 1933 sci-fi classic—which itself was based on an H.G. Well story—in every possible way; in the tech that turns crazed scientist Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) transparent, in the all-too-familiar survival narrative of his abused ex-girlfriend, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), in the way even the most well-intentioned of observers fail Cecilia when she screams “monster” in a crowded room. In doing so, Whannell has done what even the original or its numerous sequels could manage: It’s made the idea of an invisible man genuinely terrifying in a familiar way, a representative of the constant, indetectable dread behind every breaking news soundbite and Twitter trend.


Image via Universal Pictures

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. The most common, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, affects 6.8 million adults. Women are twice as likely to be affected. The second most common, Panic Disorder, affects 6 million adults. Women are twice as likely to be affected.

Just some numbers to keep in mind as we discuss what exactly Whannell is weaponizing to craft a potent horror film. The bulk of the movie takes place after Cecilia escapes her abusive relationship and after Adrian is reported dead, a time when well-meaning friends and family would classify her situation as safe. But when wounds are buried deep, deep beneath the surface, fear doesn’t just go away, it lingers in empty corners, familiar smells, errant noises.

Whannell’s patient eye and Moss’ low-key crumbling performance combine to bring this feeling to life. Often, in the early moments of The Invisible Man, the camera will hold on nothing; a rack of dresses, a slightly-ajar bathroom door, bacon left sizzling in an empty kitchen. You wait for the payoff, the bang-crash jump scare, but that nothing remains…nothing. A little later, Whannell plays with the opposite; Moss will fill the frame just living her life—unpacking a box, laughing with found-family James (Aldis Hodge) and Sydney (Storm Reid), or sleeping—and again, you wait. And again, nothing.


Image via Universal Pictures

Fear of nothing is the insidious kernel at the center of anxiety. Just minding your own damn business—doing the laundry, making dinner, writing a piece about Leigh Whannell’s Invisible Man, just some examples—when a certainty will arrive from the ether to let you know everyone you’ve ever met hates you, and just as a reminder your loved ones will die someday. Or maybe there’s not even a name to the fear. Maybe it’s just an empty frame that still feels like it’s full of danger. I know this feeling. I also understand that no level of well-crafted horror filmmaking could make me feel it the same way as a woman, much less a survivor like Cecilia. (Even as a huge fan of the film and what Whannell pulled off, you have to wonder what this story looks like helmed by a woman.) Sci-fi fantasy tales didn’t conjure up wall-to-wall coverage of convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein or the fact that the trailer for Nia DaCosta‘s Candyman only got Jordan Peele‘s name to trend. A day in 2020 means living with a million invisible aggressions determined to make you the center of a horror story.

Of course, The Invisible Man is still a movie that requires dramatic escalation and Whannell eventually does have to show his monster in plain view. But even that is the scariest end result; one of the most frightening conclusions for a person living with any form of anxiety is to be right. To learn the nagging voice at the back of your head saying you’re worthless, or crazy, or in danger is real.


Image via Universal Pictures

*Heavy spoilers to follow* 

The beauty of horror, though, is in the survival. When it works, it’s the most cathartic genre of storytelling because it gives you the sense of living through fear and making it safely to the other side. The Invisible Man‘s third act twists itself into maybe one too many knots, but the final shot works. Cecilia kills Adrien—for real this time—essentially “winning” the fight with her own demon. But it’s a dangerous road to walk down when you’re dealing with mental illness to ever declare a winner. Certainly, Cecilia’s life is still in shambles; her sister is dead, she’s a few days out from being held in a mental institution, and now she quite literally has a man’s blood on her hands.

But Whannell ends on movie close on Cecilia’s face and lets Moss tell you everything you need to know without words. At that moment, at least, Cecilia has found some kind of peace. What’s more, it’s something you can see.

For more on The Invisible Man, head here.

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