Elisabeth Moss is still fleeing Gilead. In The Invisible Man, Leigh Wannell’s psychodramatic remake of H.G. Wells’ science-fiction classic, she plays Cecilia Kass, wife/prisoner in a sleek fortress owned by a tech billionaire on a secluded cliffside in Northern California. He controls every aspect of her life — what she wears, eats and says, and increasingly what she thinks — and she’s had enough.
Shades of The Handmaid’s Tale are never larger than in the calibrated 3 a.m. escape she organizes in the film’s gripping opening: drugging her captor, disabling the home’s surveillance system, scaling a wall, fleeing through a pitch-black forest for the refuge of her sister’s getaway car.
Support awaits her in the San Francisco suburbs, not only from her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) but from their childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge), now a police officer with a teenage daughter (Storm Reid), who offers to shelter Cecilia in her time of need. When she’s informed that her abusive husband, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), has killed himself, she finally allows herself to breathe. The Invisible Man is, among other things, a movie about coping with trauma, as Cecilia gingerly awakens to a life without fear, her PTSD dissolving a little bit more with each passing day.
Until, that is, she begins to sense a presence in the house — a creepy feeling of being watched. Director Wannell, who most famously penned the first three Saw films and all four Insidious movies, proves to be a bona fide master of suspense behind the camera, finding the eerie in the everyday, and stretching quiet moments of implacable discomfort with nerve-racking patience.
As in the source material, Adrian is a master in optics technology, and he’s managed to master an invisibility cloak, evidently from beyond the grave. In filming his terror campaign against Cecilia, Wannell has crafted a slippery spin on the home-invasion genre, and by deploying point-of-view shots through the eyes of her unseen abuser, Wannell turns his audience into a roomful of complicit voyeurs, visually violating her space.
Wannell is something of a classicist storyteller in the way he introduces props — a ladder, a fire extinguisher, a pen — in benign settings, allowing astute viewers to file them away for their more substantial second acts. There is a sense of play even within this adaptation’s grim framework, with Wannell toying with poltergeist tropes and winking at franchises as varied as Psycho and Scooby-Doo.
But the antecedents I kept returning to were the films in Roman Polanski’s invasive “Apartment Trilogy,” especially Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. As the invisible terrorist ramps up his campaign of psychological and physical warfare, and Cecilia feebly attempts to explain its origins to the rest of the world, she becomes, in the eyes of society, an unhinged madwoman.
There are issues with this Invisible Man, namely the sort of implausible narrative contrivances that stretch credulity every now and then, which in an emptier picture might have bothered me more. Certainly Wells purists may be put off by its sidelining of the title character’s personal psychological journey in favor of one of his victims.
But this revisionist scrubbing of the 19th-century text is exactly the point. Playing off a real and disturbing history of gaslighting, of cultural misogyny, of women prone to hysterics, Cecilia’s frustration takes on a furiously feminist subtext.
And Moss, her eyes bloodshot and makeup pale and pockmarked, remains the brutalized but resilient avatar for countless women abused and tormented by men protected by institutional immunity. She’s the invisible one, and this shocking and confrontational horror movie allows her to be seen.
INVISIBLE MAN. Director: Leigh Wannell; Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman; Distributor: Universal; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at most area theaters