Film: The Invisible Man

Glaring structural predictability can be a severe drawback in cinema, but The Invisible Man (2020)—which for much of its length is profoundly predictable—still manages to work pretty well. Vaguely derived from the famous H.G. Wells novel, the film opens with quiet confidence as we meet Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), the wife of a wealthy optics genius named Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Living in a fortress-like mansion on the California coast, Cecilia executes a frantic escape from her home, fleeing what’s clearly a dangerously toxic relationship. She’s rescued by her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) and goes into hiding with her detective friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid)—only to receive the surprising news that Adrian has committed suicide. Just as she’s letting her guard down, however, the shocking truth gradually comes into focus: Adrian has faked his own death, and is now sadistically stalking her, with the help of an invisibility suit that proves a powerful, soul-crushing tool to systematically ruin her life.

The bad news is that the first half of The Invisible Man is stridently unsurprising. The opening escape relies almost entirely on visual storytelling, and it’s a compelling, suspenseful stretch that features nine straight minutes without dialogue. Shortly thereafter, though, the obviousness of the plot mechanics take control of the film, locking it into structural stasis. The good news is that even during its tedious sections, the execution is adroit, sustained by subtle, eye-catching special effects and Moss’s intense performance. And really, the predictable slow-build of this section is a necessary evil for selling the film’s thematic core. It’s grueling to watch Cecilia’s life implode as Adrian’s devious plot unfolds, all the more so when it’s clearly such a potent metaphor for all-too-common, real-life abusive relationships. Finally, Cecilia’s victimhood transitions to agency as she fights back in the final act, introducing a welcome dose of the unexpected that also proves cathartic for the viewer. Ultimately, I’m not sure it’s thoroughly successful for its genre thriller elements, but as social commentary it’s unsettling and intense, and far more interesting than it looks at first glance.

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