This was one of those situations where Blumhouse used some of the profit margin from their clunkers to finance a legitimately good horror film. Even with a flimsy premise, The Invisible Man delivers an incredibly tangible brand of fear for modern cinema.
Before we get into all the amazing things Writer/Director Leigh Whanell did to make an incredibly effective horror film (and he deserves credit for revitalizing the idea but), we need to talk about the home run performance from Elisabeth Moss. Even though the filmmaking was top-notch, if the lead performance didn’t land, the rest of the film would have fallen completely flat. Whatever the studio did to secure her services was totally worth it because she absolutely stuck the landing.
What makes this character, Cecilia, particularly interesting is the complete lack of introductory background. Most of the time, we’d be introduced to her life and personality so we can learn to like and sympathize with her when the traumatic moment does come. In this instance, the audience is left to pick all that up as we go along. Moss wears that trauma in a way that feels so real, you don’t stop and think about the fact you don’t even know the character. It’s still early, and she may surpass herself when Shirley comes out later this year, but she has to be considered the front-runner for Best Actress right now. Genre bias is going to be a hurdle but that shouldn’t be counted against her performance or the contribution it had to the finished product. If there were a Most Valuable performance award, this would be it.
It was refreshing to see Whanell take the path less traveled when it came to character development but it did leave the screenplay feeling a little soft on the front end. And, for all the good things we got from the lead role (and many of the supporting ones), cleanly defining The Invisible Man’s motivation got a bit sticky. We are left to rely solely on second-hand descriptions of Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Moss’s portrayal, which she sells in abundance. The trailer gave away almost the entire plotline but, without that early character foundation, understanding the “why” took a back seat to other elements of the presentation. In terms of visual approach, Whanell was masterful with his use of empty space. There is a lot of cat and mouse going on with the audience which allowed for a lot of freedom behind the camera for cinematographer Stefan Duscio. Lingering on an empty doorway, or panning down an empty hall showed how anticipation goes a long way when investing in effective scares and this film is a prime example of how to harness that energy and manipulate audience expectations without feeling the need to jam it in their faces.
The supporting cast was pretty small overall with only six characters but then again most things seem small next to Aldis Hodge’s triceps. He played Cecilia’s family friend/conveniently available cop but it was really his character that brought the heart to the film. His daughter, played by Storm Reid, has a sisterly bond with Cecilia who has a rocky relationship with her own sister Emily, played by Harriet Dryer. Nonetheless, this is the core family group the audience is meant to sympathize with and the more they are on screen together, the more things fell into place. Michael Dorman was also very good as the weasely, spineless brother of the supposed Invisible Man. It was one of those rising tide situations where all the performances were elevated.
Benjamin Wallfisch’s original music was well crafted for this story and one of the first things I noticed while watching. With a slow-burning, psychological approach to storytelling, the music played a much more important role in cultivating tension and leading anticipation. Even the sound design was really well done. Knowing when and when not to have noise made all the difference in a film where the presentation is all about stealth. Without the visual presence of an antagonist, the audible presence really had to carry the load.
It wasn’t as easy to describe this movie as I had thought. For me, I equated it to a snowball slowly gathering momentum as it rolls downhill but it’s never moving when you look at it. It keeps getting closer each time you look back until it eventually rolls right over you. Everything is right there in front of you but it was made with so much quality that you start to question it. This was a really refreshing offering for a mainstream horror release.
Recommendation: If you like horror movies or psychological thrillers, this is the movie for you. Yong filmmakers can also learn a lot about minimalism here and I think this will have a lot of crossover appeal for non-horror fans as well.