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The Invisible Man gives a classic horror story new life in a fable about abusers

Elisabeth Moss is brilliant as a woman trying to escape her husband’s clutches.

A woman in a jumpsuit is dragged away by her feet.
Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man.
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Are abusive men invisible?

The question seems almost perverse. Of course they’re not invisible; to their victims, they’re all too visible, taking up all the space in the victims’ lives and minds, crowding out the possibility of feeling “normal.” Some grab headlines and demand to be heard. They’re larger than life.

But it’s all too common, when an abuser is revealed, for people to be shocked. He was so lovely, we say. He seemed so nice. We never saw it coming. Even someone whose predatory behavior is an open secret, and whose temper is no secret at all, can be “charming,” a Dr. Jekyll side to the Mr. Hyde core. Charisma can help an abuser hide in plain sight, while the people around him scurry to tend to his needs and stay out of his way. And even when he’s absent, he’s present — a looming mental presence even when physically removed.

That’s why The Invisible Man seems so eerily well-timed, releasing in theaters mere days after Harvey Weinstein’s conviction on two criminal charges, including rape. The movie’s plot may not seem so contemporary, based loosely on an H.G. Wells novel first published in 1897 (subtitled “A Grotesque Romance”) and a film released in 1933. (Neither the new film nor its source materials are related to the 1952 Ralph Ellison novel.)

Previous retellings have centered on the Invisible Man himself and served as a warning against hubris and grandiosity. This one takes another tack entirely, focusing on a woman named Cecilia (a splendid Elisabeth Moss) who is desperate to escape the clutches of her fabulously wealthy and abusive husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Adrian’s wealth comes from his work as a leader in the field of surveillance technologies. So even when Cecilia flees, with her sister’s help, to the home of their friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), she worries that Adrian will find her. She’s so shaky and fearful that she can barely leave the house.

Then Adrian turns up dead, and it seems as though Cecilia’s nightmare might be over. And yet she can feel a presence, as if she’s being not just watched but stalked. She’s convinced he’s alive and invisible, while everyone around her, even those who love her, is confident that her emotional instability is devolving into some kind of madness.

The Invisible Man understands how scary an absent predator is

The Invisible Man uses one of the great visual horror devices: Letting you wonder what’s lurking around the edges of the screen. But because the villain isn’t visible to anyone, not even the characters in the film, it’s extra creepy, and extra effective.

You’re in Cecilia’s headspace, experiencing what she’s experiencing, checking corners of a room for what we know wouldn’t be visible even if it were there. Adrian once controlled everything about Cecilia — where she went, who she talked to, what she wore, what she ate. Even if he’s not really there, even if he’s dead, he’s still in her mind.

But in this story, he’s also actually there, a fact the movie wastes no time establishing; sometimes, it even seems more preoccupied with fitting in cool horror scenes than with building tension. It’s as if the movie gets distracted by clever images and loses its way. But Moss’s extraordinarily committed performance, under the direction of writer and director Leigh Whannell, holds the whole thing together. Cecilia is being gaslit, she knows it, and she can’t express it to anyone else, because nobody would believe her. Just look at her eyes.

A woman stands in a shower while a handprint appears on the steamy shower door.
Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man.
Universal Pictures

In that way, The Invisible Man is a strong evocation of what we really mean when we talk about how important it is to “believe women.” It’s not that every woman, or everyone who says they’ve been abused, should not be questioned; it’s that the balance needs to shift away from a default position of suspicion to one of cautious but compassionate trust.

Living inside The Invisible Man for two hours, we get to experience the existential terror of being a survivor of abuse who isn’t believed, and witness the many ways that crafty predators can manipulate their prey, making it seem as if they are the abused ones, and the accuser is the one who ought to be punished. It’s an old, old story, and an all too familiar one. (In a strange meta-twist, this movie was originally announced as a vehicle for alleged domestic abuser Johnny Depp.)

One need look no further for an example of this dynamic in action than the case of Bill Cosby, or even more recently, the case of Harvey Weinstein — in some sense the most invisible man of them all, the one whose bold refusal to treat the women he victimized like humans allowed him to act with impunity for decades. People didn’t “see” Weinstein because they didn’t want to, and because he convinced them they didn’t need to.

Brilliantly, the Weinstein-esque character in another recent film, The Assistant, was portrayed as both suffocatingly ever-present and sort of invisible. In that movie, we never see the abusive character’s face or clearly hear his voice; we just feel the force of his fury and sense the way he looms over the lives of everyone who works for him, especially when he’s physically away from them.

Defending Weinstein in court required building a case that, actually, it was he, the powerful executive, who was being used and even abused by the women who accused him, because they wanted something from him. It is the sort of case that feels as though it’s turned reality inside out, making the plainly obvious invisible and magnifying what’s not even there.

Weinstein’s legal team exploited digital technologies and revised history in an attempt to “prove” that his accusers were lying — producing emails that showed cordial relationships and smiling photos of Weinstein’s accusers standing next to him on red carpets. They tried to defend Weinstein by instead putting his accusers on trial. The Invisible Man similarly explores (albeit too briefly) the way digital surveillance technologies can be employed by abusers to confuse their victims and make themselves look innocent — and it shows how they turn the tables when their victims finally fight back.

So while The Invisible Man doesn’t entirely succeed in pacing, it does one thing very well: plunge us emotionally into Cecilia’s own horror story and urge us to understand. Abusers keep their victims under their thumbs, even when they’re absent. That’s plenty shocking on its own, and now is just the right time to be telling this story, this way, as a piece of effective entertainment with a core of instinctual horror.

The Invisible Man opened in theaters on February 28. On March 20, it became available on a wide variety of on-demand services, including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime and FandangoNow.

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