Film students and theorists are going to be studying the career of writer/director Leigh Whannell for decades, trying to suss out how this young Australian has mined piles of gold from high-concept but low-budget popcorn fare. Whannell has been responsible for bringing two hugely successful horror franchises into the world—the sagas of Saw and Insidious—and, in 2018, turned the fairly ridiculous B-movie plot of Upgrade into a hit thanks to his stylized direction and pulpy action sequences.
Whannell is about to have another hit on his hands with Blumhouse Productions’ The Invisible Man. Made on a slender budget that was likely eaten up by CGI effects, this riff on H.G. Wells’s sci-fi classic is a slow, steady squeeze from a vise that doesn’t release its grip until its final shot.
There’s nothing I can tell you about the plot of the movie that you can’t learn with one viewing of the film’s trailer. In fact, Invisible Man follows the exact same trajectory as its preview. It starts in medias res, setting us in the luxe seaside home of Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), an abusive and awful tech genius, just as his girlfriend Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) is making her elaborate escape from his clutches.
From that moment, Whannell and editor Andy Canny (with some egregious, droning interjections from composer Benjamin Wallfisch) offer only brief moments of respite. Otherwise, we, like Cecilia, are constantly on guard, waiting for Adrian to emerge from the shadows and wreak havoc.
Time for a fairly obvious content warning: If you’ve been in an abusive relationship, you might want to consider steering clear of The Invisible Man. The film features a handful of scenes of Cecilia getting physically attacked or psychologically tortured by her unseen assailant, and through Moss’s tightly wound, perfectly controlled performance, the emotional and psychological scars of her time with Adrian are ever-present. Whannell and Moss brings the experience of a toxic relationship to the screen with terrifying precision—so much so that watching Cecilia the tables on her ex in the film’s third act offers little release.
As with Upgrade, Whannell’s failing is his insistence on raising the stakes and constructing set pieces that get more and more elaborate as Invisible Man rolls toward its conclusion. In doing so, he does a disservice to his main character’s plight by resorting to a technically elaborate fight. Invisible Man’s ultraviolent blowups are impressive, sure, but they also feel like Whannell showing off, when scenes like watching Cecilia crawl through a dark attic—seeking out clues that her supposedly dead ex is alive, invisible, and making her life a waking nightmare—are more than enough to leave viewers reeling.