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Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Invisible Man

Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man starts off as such a perfectly tuned and thought out thriller that it's kind of disheartening when it devotes its second hour to more standard "mad slasher" thriller tropes.  If I do knock the film (and knock it I must, as there are just too many plot holes for me to ignore), it's only because this movie starts out so beautifully, and slowly but surely loses confidence in its initial vision, until we're stuck with a fairly routine horror movie, when we could have had a brilliant one.

And yet, I have so much respect for what Whannell wants to do, and succeeds at for the first half of the film.  He's basically doing a Sci-Fi horror take on the domestic abuse thriller.  It's an intriguing idea, and the way that he generates the fear and tension around his female lead Cecilia (strongly played by Elizabeth Moss) throughout the first hour is nothing short of masterful.  He generates tension simply by having Cecilia being alone in a room, and secretly knowing that somehow she is not alone.  Her physically abusive husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is dead, but somehow she knows he's still around.  She can sense him perhaps, and there are some truly unnerving moments the film pulls off, such as when Cecilia tries to pick up some bed sheets that have fallen to the floor, and finds that she can't move them, as someone seems to be standing on top of them, even though no one is there.

What I love about the film's initial vision is how it creates tension out of the simplest things.  There's a moment where Cecilia is celebrating with her good friend James (Aldis Hodge), who has been letting her live with him after she fled from her previous life with Adrian, and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid).  At first the scene is warm and celebratory, as intended, but then the camera suddenly cuts to a further away shot, where we are watching the same moment from afar, and it instantly gives it a creepier and almost voyeuristic vibe.  We are suddenly watching it from the outside, and seemingly through the eyes of an intruder who should not be present.  This is almost Hitchcock in the way it's pulled off, and how it creates a completely different vibe for the audience just by using a further away shot, watching the scene from a distance in a dark hallway nearby.  The scene that was joyous just seconds ago is now unsettling. 

There are plenty of moments like that early on, and the movie gives off a consistently confident vibe.  I thought to myself, "this is a movie that knows exactly what it's doing, and it's paying off".  I especially love how it handles Cecilia being a broken woman who, in the early scenes, is afraid to just step outside James' house to check the mailbox.  It creates sympathy and tension by having all the natural outdoor sounds fade away as soon as she sets foot outside the door.  There are no birds or usual outdoor sounds, or even a music track in the background.  The total silence somehow captures the heightened sense of fear that she is feeling.  She walks down the driveway, and the silence is almost deafening.  Credit also has to go to Moss' performance, as she convincingly creates a sense of panic.  In a normal film, we would get the story of how Cecilia grows stronger and more confident, and learns to live a normal life.  But, in another brilliant move, the movie is really about how the cruelty and control of an abusive relationship can linger, and that sometimes there is very little comfort, even after the domestic nightmare is over.

In the film's opening moments, we see how Cecilia escaped from Adrian with the help of her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer).  Even though she's far away from her husband's control, she's still a slave to him in a way, as she's constantly in fear of him.  Then she receives word that Adrian has taken his own life, supposedly over her running away.  Somehow, not even this comforts her completely  Yes, Cecilia tries to go on with her life, and applies for a job, which is something her husband never let her do.  She even receives word that that Adrian has left her a total sum of $5 million in his will.  Her husband, we learn, was a leading scientist in the field of optics, and led a life of luxury.  But what he really wanted was someone to control completely.  And now, even in death, he seems to be still controlling her.  Cecilia begins to sense that someone is in the house with her when she is alone.  She knows she's not crazy, and she knows that Adrian is somehow behind it all, as he once promised her that she could never escape from him, and that he would find her no matter where she was.

I could continue to describe this portion of the film, and how wonderfully The Invisible Man creates tremendous tension with its premise of a battered woman who cannot live her life because her abuser is somehow still haunting her, but I will stop here.  I don't want to give anything else away about the first half, because it holds some wonderful and powerful surprises.  It's after the first hour or so that the movie stops being a successful blend of a human drama mixed with elements of a paranormal thriller, and slowly but surely turns into a much more schlocky affair.  I don't know if writer-director Leigh Whannell just lost interest in the idea, or if studio interference is somehow involved, but the first hour and the second almost feel like completely different movies.  If the first is chilling and subtle, then the second is bloody, over the top, and a basic "girl in peril" movie where Cecilia stops being a human being, and is asked to do a lot of action stunts and scream cliched lines. 

The movie also becomes surprisingly sloppy during this section, and starts creating and ignoring massive plot holes that really needed to be covered.  I'm afraid I can't talk about a lot of them, as it would lead to massive spoilers, but I have a hunch a lot of audiences are going to be confused about the role certain characters played in the ending revelations.  The filmmakers also stop trying to go for genuine suspense, and instead rely on incredibly cheap shocks, such as a scene in a restaurant that is all the more a blatant set up for an extremely cheap shock image the more I think back on it.  Instead of the movie playing mind games with us and creating tension, it wants to have its villain being a mindless stalker and killer.  Characters who were warm and human before suddenly start to be manipulated by the plot, and act in accordance to unwritten rule of Hollywood screenplays.  In general, the movie stops being human, and turns into a body count film focused only on gore.

My heart sunk when I realized that this is all the film was leading up to.  Why go this predictable route?  Why not genuinely surprise us by having the confidence to actually see your initial vision all the way through?  Why tantalize us with genuine suspense, and then throw it all to the winds so you can splash some bloody special effects up on the screen?  Not only that, but the movie also develops a desire to constantly fool us by throwing one plot twist on top of another.  The problem is, few of these twists actually make sense, and some only create massive questions which the movie never bothers to answer.  Again, I can't go into much detail, sadly.  However, I know I'm not alone, as I heard some of my fellow audience members asking the same questions I had as they were leaving the theater. 

So, the ultimate question becomes do I recommend this?  I really want to, as there is a lot here that is good.  But, there is also so much that goes wrong, and I find myself of two minds when it comes to The Invisible Man.  I guess I would tell people to watch it for the vastly superior first half, but just be prepared for some let downs in the second, and some aspects that just don't make sense when you think back on them.  I really want to give this the highest praise, but the movie loses its nerve after a while.  I hate when that happens.

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