Whannell: The Invisible Man (2020)

Sometimes the escalation of the #MeToo movement, and the greater visibility around abuse, can just make misogyny feel even more intractable in the present moment. That intractability is peculiarly bound up in a scenario that recurs time and again in true crime – women who are literally unable to leave their husbands for fear of being killed, and, conversely, men whose need to control women is so pronounced that death isn’t enough to satisfy them. In these cases, women are often left in a precarious position in which the police force, legal establishment and medical establishment are unable to properly monitor the space just after they leave their husbands, or the space just after they articulate their own desire – the space in which they are likely to be murdered, and where misogyny perpetuates itself as a structural and societal force that exceeds any single death, or the media agony about any single death. In many ways, that space is the subject matter of Leigh Whannell’s remake of The Invisible Man, which already feels like one of the great horror films of the decade, and is the most accomplished film so far in Whannell’s oeuvre.

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As the title suggests, The Invisible Man is an adaptation of the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells, and the 1933 adaptation by James Whale. An adaptation rather than a reboot, Whannell’s script radically changes the perspective of the original film and novel, which focus on a scientist, Jack Griffin, who has developed a process for turning himself invisible. In Whannell’s version, however, the main character is not a scientist, but a scientist’s partner, Cecilia Kass, played by Elisabeth Moss, who we first meet escaping her abusive boyfriend, Adrian Griffin, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, in the middle of the night. No context is initially given for this escape, and very little information is provided about Adrian, apart from a glimpse of a laboratory that we later learn forms part of his world-renowned research into optics. Only after Cecilia has fled their lavish seaside house, and taken refuge with James Lanier, a childhood friend played by Aldis Hodge, does Cecilia open up about the nature of her relationship, to James, and to her sister, Emily, played by Harriet Dyer. We learn that Adrian tried to control Cecilia in every way – physically, professionally, psychologically – especially if “he didn’t like what he assumed I was thinking,” and that her decision to run away was cemented when he demanded a baby in order to consolidate them as a nuclear family unit.

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Up until this point, The Invisible Man plays more like a psychological horror film, focused more on post-traumatic stress than a living, breathing antagonist, especially once Cecilia discovers that Adrian has apparently committed suicide, and left his entire fortune to her. No information is given about Adrian’s research into invisibility, so his presence initially seems to emerge straight out of the abusive aftermath of his relationship with Cecilia, and to be a figment of her imagination. During some of her most intense post-traumatic attacks, she starts to sense that Adrian is nearby, although Whannell takes a while to confirm his presence in any tangible way. For the first part of the film, Whannell simply allows his camera to linger on empty domestic spaces in James’ house, where Cecilia is staying, until they brim with an agency that Cecilia, and the audience, can’t quite process. From the very outset, there’s a strong affinity between the camera, and Adrian’s invisibility, that reminded me of Paranormal Activity, since Adrian’s presence first emerges when the camera lingers with no ostensible point of focus, set adrift in a suburban house with nothing to really see.

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Like Paranormal Activity, The Invisible Man is acutely interested in the energies that emerge in the suburban household, and in the hearth of the nuclear family, when the camera is allowed to linger in this way. Like Paranormal Activity, too, Whannell’s film suggests that every suburban house, and every suburban family, is haunted by the presence of white paternal masculinity, as a force of coercion and control. In a kind of endgame of suburban horror, Whannell presents white paternal agency as the force haunting the house, rather than the force needed to expunge it, collapsing Adrian so completely into the house, during these opening scenes, that Cecilia is addressing the architectural fixtures as much as her ex-boyfriend when she starts sensing him, and talking to him. Of course, this house is not Adrian’s house, and is not even a white house, occupied instead by James, who is African-American, and his daughter, Sydney, played by Storm Reid. By presenting a black family home that is now haunted by a invisible white patriarch, Whannell suggests that the monstrous misogyny that Adrian embodies can only die with suburbia, and with the demise of the nuclear family – or, conversely, that the nuclear family, and suburbia, is white by default, even or especially when it is inhabited by black folk as easily it appears to be here.

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Beyond a certain point, then, it’s inevitable that James and Sydney have to retreat, leaving Cecilia alone with her husband-house. In the early stages of the film, they happen to be out whenever Adrian makes himself known, while the later stages of Adrian’s plan depend on alienating Cecilia from them so that he can enjoy her alone in the house. Before we arrive at that point, however, Whannell draws a stark comparison between the two types of masculinity that Adrian and James represent. On the one hand, James typifies all the traits normally arrogated by a white patriarch – he is masculine, he is well built, he is a good father, and he is a respected police officer; a representative of law both inside and outside his own house. On the other hand, Adrian is almost entirely invisible, especially in the first stages of the film, where he is much more disembodied than Jack Griffin in Wells’ novel, or Whale’s film, moving more fluidly and silently than any normally visible human. Even or especially when a black man is in this supreme paternal position, then, the very subject position of suburban patriarch is haunted by an invisible white agenda, which is all the more perverse in that Adrian has no intrinsic reason for haunting Cecilia. Instead, we learn, he started controlling her purely because no other woman had ever left him, or expressed a desire outside of him, just as he punishes James for simply being in a house where he is not.

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Gradually, little by little, Adrian begins to reveal himself, starting with gestures so small that I probably wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t seen the film in a VMax format. Adrian sets out to complete invisibly what he couldn’t do visibly, falling back upon the structural misogyny of white masculinity to finish what he couldn’t quite handle as an individual. Unable to contain Cecilia within his own house, Adrian becomes the house she is living in, wherever she happens to be living, since it’s always possible that he’s somewhere close by, watching her every move. As a world leader in the field of optics, Adrian knows how to manage the optics of this abuse in just the right way, escalating each stage of abuse as a sustained horror tableau, thereby turning The Invisible Man into an update of George Cukor’s Gaslight for the gaslighting era. The first step in Adrian’s plan is undermining Cecilia professionally, which he achieves by removing her portfolio from her bag on the eve of an important job interview. Not only does this make her seem flustered at the interview, but it forces her to acknowledge his invisibility for the very first time just when she needs to be at her professional best, as she realises that he is probably watching her at this very moment.

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It’s doubly important for Adrian to curtail Cecilia’s career because she is an architect, meaning that she is adept at creatively appropriating the very domestic spaces he is trying to close around her. Her opening escape was a feat of architectural ingenuity, given the lengths she had to go to in order to escape their elaborate seaside compound without waking Adrian, or setting off their complex security system. Having removed Cecilia from the professional environment where she might continue this spatial exploration, Adrian works on circumscribing her physiologically, putting Diazepam in her drinks so that he can manipulate her more. The effects of this manipulation occur gradually and uncannily, starting with Cecilia finding Adrian’s old phone in James’ attic, and scrolling through a series of photographs of her drugged in bed. Later on, she discovers that she is pregnant, and that Adrian has assaulted her while she has been drugged, in the ultimate violation of her personal space. In both cases, Adrian intentionally delays Cecilia’s discovery of how drastically her physiological boundaries have been violated, as if to reveal to her, in the present moment, that those boundaries might as well have never existed in their romance.

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However, this personal, professional and physiological control is a mere prologue to the main part of Adrian’s plan – a sustained project of gaslighting, in which he systematically alienates Cecilia from everyone (and especially women) who might possibly believe her account of his invisibility and abuse. At first, Adrian uses his invisibility to perform malicious acts that are then attributed to Cecilia, including sending a brutal email to her sister Emily from her email account. Over time, however, Adrian escalates his gaslighting so as to make Cecilia seem like an abuser, and then a murderer – and to make it seem, in retrospect, as if she must have been the problem in their relationship all along. It’s not enough for Adrian to control her, or torture her, or kill her – he must erase any part of her past desire that was autonomous from his own, and remake the relationship in his own image in the eyes of even her closest friends and confidantes. As the film proceeds, this need to alienate Cecilia from her own experiences often makes it seem as if she is invisible, or blind, unable to ever lock her gaze on what is most essential for her survival – the location of Adrian’s own gaze.

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This is especially clear in the first scene where Adrian physically abuses Cecilia in this new invisible guise. As Cecilia is hurled and pummelled across James’ kitchen by an ex-boyfriend she can’t see, Whannell eerily visualizes the victim-blaming narrative that victims are effectively abusing themselves, by bringing abuse upon themselves – and that they are the only antagonists of any note within their own narratives. Throughout the film, Adrian often creates scenarios that confirm this idea, engineering situations in which Cecilia feels compelled to take the blame for what is occurring, despite fully recognising Adrian’s malicious intentions. In the grisly centerpiece of the film, Adrian permits Cecilia to meet Emily for dinner, permits the two women to reconcile, and even permits Emily to see the truth by raising a knife in mid-air in front of her, before using the knife to slash Emily’s throat, thereby reminding Cecilia that the punishment for any woman who dares to experience a belief or desire outside of his own narrative of the relationship is violent death.

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Even this is not enough to satiate Adrian, however, whose next step is to get Cecilia institutionalised, and to converge his own invisibility with the institutional invisibility of abuse, orchestrating her “crimes” so that the entire medico-legal establishment is aligned against her. After being placed in a psychiatric ward for having apparently murdered her sister, Cecilia gets a visit from Tom Griffin, Adrian’s brother, played by Michael Dorman, who reveals that he knows about Adrian’s invisibility, and that he will put the full weight of his corporate law firm behind protecting his brother. Moreover, Tom notes that Cecilia has now voided her inheritance, which depended on her not committing criminal activity, revealing that the sole purpose of the inheritance was for Adrian to be able to reiterate his financial control over Cecilia in this more drastic manner. At the same time, Adrian murders most of the medical staff and security guards at the hospital, arrogating sole control of it as an institution, while also making it appear as if Cecilia has committed mass murder, and so needs to be transferred from hospital to prison. With Adrian supported by the legal system, the medical system and the prison system, Cecilia appears to have no options, making her abjectly vulnerable when Adrian gives her a final ultimatum: to carry his baby to childbirth.

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There is thus no distinction between the first part of Adrian’s torment, when he is punishing Cecilia for leaving him, and the second part, when he is torturing her into having his child. Punishing her for daring to have a desire outside of him, and demanding she have his baby, converge on the same toxic masculine project. This leaves Cecilia in a figurative bind, since the only way to prove that Adrian is still alive is to have his child (a nurse informs her that she became pregnant in the last month, after he “died”), while the only way she can expose him as a monstrous patriarch is to ratify his patriarchy by providing him with his first baby. This figurative bind converges, in turn, with Adrian’s array of institutional powers, presenting the institution of motherhood itself as a zero-sum game within a nuclear family model in which the requirements of the father come first, and justify any and all behaviours.

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Only once Adrian has announced this plan of monstrous fatherhood does he permit himself to become semi-visible to Cecilia, although even then we never see his face or body. Instead, he is clad in a black invisibility suit that resembles the costuming of a Marvel or DCE antihero, like Deadpool or Venom. Given the abuse and horror that has preceded this costume, Adrian morphs the superhero into a descendant of the slasher, transplanting the slasher’s obsession with regulating domestic boundaries onto a more international canvas, as if to suggest that America’s fixation with superheroes is merely the flipside of white male paranoia at the prospect of being rendered invisible – or having to recoup white masculinity from a position of perceived invisibility. In the final stages of The Invisible Man, Whannell thus moves beyond even institutional abuse to examine the role that victim-silencing plays in the regulation of the American nation state – a horror twist made for an era in which acknowledging presidential power simultaneously requires repressing presidential assault, along with the many forms of Republican world-building founded on that perverse demand.

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In a grand sweep, then, The Invisible Man takes us from an individual narrative of abuse to a vision of how the American nation state depends on the punitive regulation of white female bodies, and the total erasure of non-white female bodies. No figure in the film is quite so antithetical to Adrian’s white fatherhood as James’ (black) daughter Sydney, who bears the main brunt of the invisible violence during this last part of the film – financially, when the voiding of Cecilia’s inheritance prevents her supporting Sydney with college funding, and physically, when Adrian beats up James in front of Sydney, and then starts in on Sydney right when Cecilia arrives to confront him. Even this violence, however, is almost excused, by James himself, when it turns out that it was Adrian’s brother, Tom, who had the invisibility suit on when Sydney was beaten up. For a brief moment, the film returns to an eerie misogynist realism, as Adrian is discovered bound in the basement of his house, and Tom is framed as the main villain, inducing James to almost convince Cecilia that, while her ex-boyfriend may have been abusive, he was also a victim, and that his victimhood, on balance, exceeds his role as abuser – exactly the media narrative normally spun about abuse in these cases, where it is used to soften and end the story, as Whannell nearly does here.

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Yet this just leads to the eeriest and uncanniest part of the film, and the culmination of Whannell’s ingenious structural alterations to Wells’ novel. Rather than allowing us any transition between Adrian in his invisible state and Adrian in his visible state, Whannell abruptly introduces Adrian as a romantic lover, anxious to win Cecilia’s heart again, atone for the past and invite her back into his life, with a romantic dinner at his seaside house – all the while maintaining that his brother was the perpetrator, and that he is as much of a victim, or even more of a victim, than her. So incommensurate does Adrian’s romantic dinner seem with his invisible actions that the film itself seems to be acknowledging a figurative impasse – the impossibility of reconciling the sympathetic men we see on the big screen with the invisible men, and invisible institutions of misogyny, that depend on precisely this semblance of sympathy. If the final stages of the film envisage the inextricability of victim-silencing from the American nation state, then the chiseled perfection of Adrian’s visible appearance, and the perfect mise-en-scene of his dinner table, is similarly ambitious in its message – that American cinema is structurally and systematically unable to depict the misogyny that should be its most urgent subject matter.

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Cecilia seems to recognise this too, responding to Adrian’s mise-en-scene, and the way he positions himself as its sympathetic protagonist, with her own endgame – playing precisely the part he wants her to play, by appealing to him to reassure her that she’s not crazy. Allowing him to slip into the role of gaslighter buys her the time she needs to slip out of the room, slip on the invisibility suit, and cut his throat in the same way that he murdered her sister, all the while configuring the security cameras in his house to make the murder looks like a suicide. Even James, who is watching the cameras from outside, isn’t made privy to this part of the plan, since this is a radical statement of autonomy from Cecilia, on behalf of her unborn child, that divests itself of even the most residual masculine supervision, including the address of Whannell’s camera itself. In the resonant final shot, Cecilia walks towards the camera and then stops, her face resolving and then relaxing into a place we can’t follow – her own private space, recovered again at the end of this extraordinary film.

About Billy Stevenson (666 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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