Warning: This is not spoiler-free and deals with the subjects of abuse and suicide.
As a long-time fan of Leigh Whannell’s work, I have been eagerly awaiting his third directorial feature since its initial announcement. While I will automatically go see and support whatever he puts out in the world, what sparked my excitement for this particular project was his approach to the source material of “The Invisible Man.” Rather than tell another classic adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, he instead uses the basic idea to reframe the narrative from the perspective of a female victim of domestic abuse.
As a screenwriter, Whannell has previously explored the themes of abuse in “Insidious: The Last Key.” The fourth installment of the franchise delves into Elise’s (Lin Shaye) traumatic childhood, revealing that as a child she ran away from home to escape her abusive father. This film came out within a month of me leaving an abusive home myself. It resonated with me in ways I could not expect walking into the theater. But watching Elise leave everything she knew behind and exclaiming, “I won’t let you hurt me any more,” was incredibly powerful. So when I heard about Whannell’s approach to “The Invisible Man,” I knew the topic would be handled in effective way.
While the film features plenty of physical scares that a man turned invisible can carry out, the true horror throughout is the abuse done to Cecelia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) by her boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). What starts as emotional manipulation and control eventually turns to physical and sexual assault. After a close escape from Adrian’s isolated house to the safety of her friend James’ (Aldis Hodge) house, Cecelia confesses to him and to her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) that Adrian controlled every aspect of her life: what she wore, when went out, even what she thought. He also tried to impregnate her as insurance for never leaving him. She snuck in birth control but knew it was only a matter of time before he found that out as well, which led to her finally leaving him.
I appreciate that none of this is seen on-screen to be exploitative and shocking. It instead relies on Moss’ performance to elucidate Cecelia’s trauma. There is also no judgment on Cecelia’s part as some victims may receive from those she confides in. No “Why didn’t you leave him sooner?”/”Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” etc. James and Emily are clearly focused instead on Cecelia’s healing and moving forward. That all becomes more complicated when Cecelia begins to suspect that Adrian, who allegedly died by suicide after she left him, is not dead at all and is back to torment her. No one believes her, allowing the story to demonstrate elements of gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a common technique abusers use on their victims. It is a form of psychological manipulation and control intended to cause doubt in the victim’s mind. Gaslighting can even cause the victim to question their own reality and sanity. Cecelia even claims about Adrian, “This is what he does. He makes me feel like I’m the crazy one.” His will states that Cecelia must be of sound mind in order to inherit the five million dollars he leaves her. The concept of an invisible man and being haunted by what you can’t see is the film’s clever way of illustrating gaslighting. Obviously, no one believes Cecelia. It parallels the way folks will refuse to believe abuse victims. “But so and so is so nice to me!” The victim’s very real experience is denied by others because what cannot be seen cannot be believed. My abuser rarely showed his true colors to people and, like Adrian, knew how to charm and manipulate people away from thinking otherwise.
There is clarity to the questions in this film that other films would be tempted to leave open. It has become a tired trope in horror to leave the sanity of women up to ambiguity, that “maybe it was all in your head.” That cliché for this movie would have downplayed Cecelia’s trauma and eventual healing. While no one believes her at first, Cecelia is always certain that Adrian is doing this to her. She is also completely certain that, even after setting up his brother to take the fall, Adrian did it all. It’s helpful to my own experience because to this day, even though I know better, my trauma sometimes makes me believe that I’m overreacting when I’m really not. I admire Cecelia’s strength.
With Adrian back to the land of the living and with zero charges against him, Cecelia knows she can never be truly safe or free. She calls to set up a reunion at hi s house, allowing us to see Adrian’s manipulation at work first-hand. Jackson-Cohen knocks it out of the park here. (It even worked on the audience. A man at the q&a later asked if it really was Adrian in the suit! Duped!!!) We see the charm and fake innocence that abusers utilize as he tells Cecelia he needs her, that he understands her better than anyone else. Textbook manipulation. Cecelia knows better now.
I won’t give away the ending because it is the most satisfied I have felt in a long time at the movies. My audience full-on cheered. I teared up at the final shot. I liken the ending to this film to other horror entries like “Revenge” that give agency to the wronged and the hurt. I’m not saying that you need to be an abusive victim in order to enjoy and appreciate this movie. It’s well-crafted and terrifying film. And while there is a terror to what we cannot see, the true horror is the invisible man as the physical manifestation of how our past trauma can haunt us. I hope that others find catharsis in Cecelia’s journey and the ending’s ultimate “GOOD FOR HER” moment. I never got closer with my abuser, but I at least get to watch Cecelia give Adrian his comeuppance.
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