Although, as you would suspect, the invisible man in this year’s “The Invisible Man” is largely silent (it’s not scary if he goes around merrily singing show tunes), the movie itself is anything but. Leigh Whannell’s “Gaslight” take on the movie has some strong points and some weak ones, but the thing that it may be most memorable for is its volume. It is loud. Not the dialogue portion, which leads me to believe that the theater we saw it at did not simply have the volume turned too high, but the music and the sound effects.
“The Invisible Man” is aggressive in its sound design, just as the invisible man is aggressive in his pursuit of Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss). While Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the man who invents the invisible ability in this film, is wily and devious, the sounds are not. They are just right there, in your ears. There are moments of quiet, and they are wonderful, but they are all too few. Too often the film chooses to aurally pummel.
Although it may not seem it, this is indeed important. Those moments of quiet are where the film is at its best. Jump scares are something anyone can do, but Whannell shows that in the quiet scenes, the scenes where there may or may not be an invisible abusive ex-boyfriend in the room with Cecilia, that the writer-director excels. It is in these moments, moments where nothing happens and the camera lingers as that nothing occurs ,that Whannell brilliantly builds tension. Is there something there? Is there not? Cecilia doesn’t know and neither does the audience; both are driven crazy by it.
As much as the tension here is focused on this unseen individual, the movie itself is focused on Moss’s Cecilia. The actress, as she has been in the past, is incredible here. While Whannell can build tension by showing the audience (literally) nothing, it wouldn’t work nearly as well if Moss didn’t bring an incredible energy to her role. We see a weakened Cecilia trying to find her strength, trying to get people to believe that Adrian, who allegedly committed suicide, has in fact found a way to become invisible and is tormenting her. During their relationship he was abusive to her—just as he was to his brother, Tom (Michael Dorman)—and it is entirely logical to believe everyone around Cecilia as they tell her that this is just Adrian’s final way of tormenting her.
Whannell leans heavily into this idea of gaslighting, making the movie very much a part of today’s world and the conversations we have in it. With Moss in the lead role, rather than feeling as though the movie is exploiting real issues in order to shock and scare, “The Invisible Man” approaches something more nuanced and worthwhile. Then, of course, the movie gets exceptionally loud again, there’s an obvious jump scare, and the whole thing falls back to the far more mundane.
This, in a nutshell, is a problem with the film – the mix of cheap tricks and deep thoughts never quite blends. The movie goes from serious, smart, real, conversations Cecilia has with her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), and her friend, James Lanier (Aldis Hodge), and then can’t help but have her (or someone else) doing something horror movie stupid. Over and over again, one wants to yell at Cecilia for putting herself in a dumb situation where she will never be believed and for not using irrefutable evidence when she has it.
It is a shame because the movie gets so much right. Watching as Cecilia is swung around the room by no one is an impressive and horrifying effect, and yet never as impressive as the fear Moss delivers believing someone is watching her or the righteous anger of Hodge’s James when he believes that his daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid), has been hurt by this woman he has taken into his house. Those are the moments when “The Invisible Man” achieves greatness.
Those moments are also far too few and far too overshadowed by the unremarkable. The psychological bits Whannell and company deliver here are wonderful, but the overt thrills are not, nor are the reveals and certainly not the logic. For every moment of genius in the movie there is at least one of sheer stupidity. Logic gaps, inane actions, and general foolishness abound.
“The Invisible Man” gets the job done, but, just like its sound design, it tends to bludgeon when it’s so much better in its quiet, nimble, moments.
photo credit: Universal Pictures