For a film like this, I think it’s relevant for me to point out that I am not very good at predicting twists. Of course there are some that are glaringly obvious, I’m not a moron (we can agree to disagree if you like), but by and large I don’t find myself approaching movies like a detective. And so it gives me no pleasure to report that The Invisible Man blew me away while I was watching it, but had me seriously frustrated within a half-hour of leaving the theater. In regards to the twists in particular, you can perhaps take my initial enjoyment with a grain of salt if you’re more inclined to pick up on these things.
My frustration mainly stems from the fact that I want to love this movie. I wish it was the best horror film of the year. I think its new faked-death stalker premise for the classic Universal monster of its title is quite daring and Leigh Whannell’s direction — especially on a $9 million budget — is inventive and visually striking. I also agree with the majority of cinephiles today in believing Elisabeth Moss to be one of the finest actors of her generation. She certainly carries this film and makes complex, emotional silence look effortless to convey on screen. She can say more with one look than most actors can with pages of dialogue.
Where this new iteration falters, however, is in its plotting. It’s perfectly paced to be a crowdpleaser; it zigs when you think it will zag, it keeps you on your toes in both near-silence and in chatter, and a few of the twists are genuinely shocking, if only in a “I can’t believe this movie just went there” kind of way. But there are several times where character development and cohesive narrative structure are sacrificed on the altar of tautness and tension. There are characters who die only because the script demands something interesting happen at that point. It’s easy to see all this through the lens of spousal abuse by a crazy man, and indeed that’s what the movie sells as the motivating factor of its plot points. But intentional or not, when certain characters are attacked by or die at the hands of the invisible man, it feels like it’s only happening because the writer was too lazy to develop those victims any further. The film may get more tense and viscerally engaging the more isolated Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) becomes, but it certainly becomes less interesting.
The reason I feel that shift into pure action mode contrasts so bitterly is because the first half of the film perfectly juggles its disparate tones. After a bravado near-silent opening sequence in which Cecily escapes her abusive millionaire tech-wiz husband, her gradual steps to get her life back on track along with her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) and family friend James (Aldis Hodge) are really convincing. As she finds safe haven in James’s home, there is a genuine sweetness between her and James and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). It mimics the speed and tone at which people generally come out of abusive situations — slowly and with genuine TLC.
But it’s not that the film’s horror sections and its character-driven sections are at odds with one another that’s the issue; it’s that the balance is so good early on that it shows us what the movie could have been. The second half is where we get most of the twists, and even though it may seem like the writing is one step ahead of the audience, when you really step back and look at it, it’s filled with a lot of cheap tricks.
Again, that isn’t to say that the entire movie is a cheap trick. I just wish that this premise had been given some room to breathe, to dig deep, to explore, and not to be fodder for a few ham-fisted moments. Even though it’s generally a fresh and bold take for this intellectual property, that doesn’t make where some of its strands end up any less cliché.
What’s so inspired about the action in this movie is that it takes its time and surprises you with nuances of physical blocking and stunt performance. I just wish the same attention had been paid to the subtle art of panache in storytelling. Sure, it zips along and at least gives lip-service to justify its every move. But truly great cinema is meant to be savored, not devoured. I say that because I wish this was a film that didn’t sour upon the second bite. That first bite was so delicious!
2 hr, 4 min; rated R for some strong bloody violence and language
‘The Invisible Man’ is now playing in theaters nationwide