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‘The Invisible Man’ is a gaslight anthem — and might be the first cool film of 2020

Elizabeth Moss in a scene from the film “The Invisible Man.”
Universal Pictures
“THE INVISIBLE MAN” — 3 stars — Elizabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Harriet Dyer, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman; R; in general release; running time: 124 minutes

The first time we actually see the invisible man — not the imprint of his footsteps, not the cold vapor of his breath, but his invisible physique becoming visible as white paint gets thrown on him— it’s genuinely startling. Never mind that this moment was the centerpiece of the movie’s trailers. I’d already seen it numerous times before watching the entire film, yet it still scared me in the theater.

Such is the effectiveness of “The Invisible Man”: You know what’s coming, but that doesn’t make it less frightening once it finally happens.

The newest horror-thriller by Blumhouse Productions — of “Get Out,” “The Purge” and “Happy Death Day” fame — “The Invisible Man” might be the first buzz-worthy film of 2020. Blumhouse founder Jason Blum has talked about how a good movie needs a concept that’s explainable in one sentence. “The Invisible Man” passes that test: What if you escaped a rich, brilliant, maniacally controlling ex-boyfriend, but he faked his own suicide, developed invisibility technology and started tormenting you like a ghost? (Hey, we didn’t say it had to be believable.)

The film has almost no connection to H.G. Wells’ 1897 book or the 1933 film of the same name. Those old works bestow this new entry with added cachet (whether deserved or not), but 2020’s “The Invisible Man” largely shuns its namesake’s past. This version is very much about the present, trading its forbearers’ rather old school representation of evil for a more timely and compelling incarnate. Instead of an invisible man murdering entire groups of strangers, rather unprovoked, like he did in those old works, this new invisible man (named Adrian, and played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen) focuses his torment on one person, his ex-girlfriend Cecilia (played by Elizabeth Moss).

If Christian Grey modeled his life (and hobbies) after Tony Stark, you’d get a guy like Adrian. He embodies all the traits of a toxic 21st century boyfriend, multiplied by infinity.

Elizabeth Moss in a scene from the film “The Invisible Man.”
Universal Pictures

“The Invisible Man” seeks to allegorize abusive men, and the way they manipulate their partners. This plot serves up the most extreme scenario for gaslighting — who, after all, would really believe someone who says, “Yes, my dead ex is still alive, he’s just invisible now”? It’s a reach! Of course you’re scared for Cecilia, but you can’t blame her detractors.

From “Mad Men” to horror-thrillers like “The One I Love,” “Us” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Moss has built a career playing traumatized women. She’s an expert at gradually cracking the veneer of a character’s resilience. This makes her characters simultaneously heartbreaking and unsettling; we never know who or what will deliver the final crumbling blow, and in the interim we tremble. “The Invisible Man” needs Moss to be great, because she’s the only person on camera for much of the film. (Her tormentor is also there, but, well, you know.) Moss’ performance here isn’t as subtle as we’ve seen from her before — you’re never left wondering what Cecilia is feeling. Whether that obviousness is purposeful, it’s hard to say. The movie isn’t lacking in tension — I clenched through most of it — but a more mysterious Cecilia could’ve turned Moss’ good performance into a great one.

Most horror-thrillers rely on the genre’s tropes to push the story forward. Such is the case here. We know Cecilia will go to the place she shouldn’t go, and do the thing she shouldn’t do, as we internally scream at her to choose otherwise. This particular movie’s plot, and the abuser metaphor therein, affords these tropes considerable grace. Of course Cecilia makes the decisions she does; Adrian has groomed her to. And the invisible Adrian doesn’t just torment, abuse and intimidate Cecilia, he makes her decisions look like those of a crazy person. Every trap pushes Cecilia toward a new, public humiliation. Gaslight, gaslight, gaslight.

“The Invisible Man” perpetually stretches the tension to its absolute limits. We know Adrian is lurking, and we’re repeatedly forced to wait tortuously long for his inevitable reveal and its consequent rampage. Some viewers might lose patience for the big jump-scares that await them. But once again, the abuser metaphor really helps. Abusers physically harm you, but the periods between their physical abuse become a weapon of psychological torture. The waiting is the hardest part.

Luckily, the supporting characters in “The Invisible Man” all seem realistic. James (Aldis Hodge), a cop friend who lets Cecilia live at his house, never says or does anything that makes you roll your eyes. His character is well sketched, and Hodge’s performance is quite good. Cecilia’s sister, Alice (Harriet Dyer), is the nononsense emotional rock we’ve all seen in real-life family dynamics. When taken literally, the movie’s plot is obviously unbelievable, but it’s not because the characters aren’t good.

“The Invisible Man” doesn’t always work as well as it could. It’s a little too heavy-handed at times, and it’s less good in hindsight than it is while you watch it. But it’s still an engaging, deliciously disturbing thriller with a timely metaphor at its center. That’s plain to see.


Rating explained: “The Invisible Man” is rated R for strong bloody violence.