Sometimes, when it comes to bad relationships, it is not about the lack of love between two people, or lack of chemistry, fidelity or attention to the other person's needs. Instead, it is all about power - who has it, how they choose to use it, how it hurts the other person.
In Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man, an intensely modern update of a 1930s creature feature, power and manipulation are the movie's subtext, the engine that has led to -- and continues to lead to -- a destructive relationship. It twists lives into ugliness and ruin, it misshapes love into a victory of dominance and subjugation, it wreaks havoc not only on the two parties involved but everyone around them.
And it bleeds, both literally and figuratively. This is a psychological horror film, after all, one that is lighter than some on the gore but heavy on the shock treatment, much of it the byproduct of revenge that is a hurricane knocking down all in its windblown path.
The Invisible Man stars Elizabeth Moss, all goggle-eyed and with a look of utter abhorrence for what is happening to her. Moss has graduated from a co-starring role in Mad Men to become a screen queen of psychological torment, whether in The Handman's Tale, Shirley or as a drugged-out rock star in Her Smell. As it those appearances, she is a force of nature and the wheel turning The Invisible Man.
The story has some of the usual jump scares of modern horror. In the opening scene, Moss's character, Cecilia Kass, escapes from the compound of her famous and brazenly domineering lover, drugging him with Diazepam and scaling the wall of the sleek palatial prison to meet her sister, who drives her to safety.
There are early signs of dominance. We learn that Cecilia's lover, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), attempts to control how Cecila looks and what clothes she wears. Tellingly, Moss tells her friend James, who takes her in after her close escape, that Adrian also wants to control what Cecilia says and thinks. Adrian is her version of a movie monster.
Whannell shoots that first scene in a way that reveals how this movie will unfold. In a semi-dark bedroom, Adrian has his arm wrapped tightly around Cecilia as she stares at the ceiling. As she arises to flee, the camera follows her from room to room, revealing the drug that is in the medicine cabinet, the mirrored house that reflects back Cecilia's image, and, most importantly, the room she must run through that features Adrian's toys -- his optical equipment and special suit that later allows him to maintain transparency (the physical kind, that is).
The tension is amped up even as she reaches the car; he has followed her and smashes the windshield in anger. It's no spoiler to state that even after he is declared dead of suicide following her disappearance from his life, you know that the dead can sometimes arise. He is an optics genius after all.
From there, there is no safety for Cecilia, even though she is living a low-key existence with her friend James, a police officer, and his daughter Sydney. She is afraid to go outside or find a job, worried that he will find her. When Adrian's oily lawyer brother tells her that she has inherited a huge sum from his estate, she is not elated. He still has his clutches on her, penetrating skin.
Things then go bump in the night, in the form of knives elevating, bed blankets falling to the ground, seat cushions flying. When Moss's character finally steps out for a job interview as an architect, she faints, drugged by the same prescription that she used on Adrian.
Of course, no one believes her stories. Adrian is gaslighting Cecilia; she wonders if she is going crazy with stress. It is at this point that the move takes several unpredictable and gruesome paths, after building the suspense as Adrian plays with Cecilia as a cat bats a ball. I won't reveal what happens next but Whannell turns the heat a bit higher through moodily effective, slow-burning sequences.
What is impressive about these scenes is not only the effective elevation of tension that Whannel achieves; it is also how Moss plays them. Instead of cowering from her attacker, she becomes bolder and more angry herself, vowing to be strong and fight back. In some ways, her resolve is her attempt to gain control from a master manipulator.
That she achieves some measure of satisfaction in her own power is one of the movie's greatest achievements. Without giving much away, she seeks revenge by taking control of the relationship. It is stunning to see her shift from helpless victim of an unseen monster to self-possessed gladiator.
Some may call this a movie in the vein of the Me Too movement, where Moss's character asserts herself and fights back against male harassers and abusers.
But Whannell -- a male director -- is not as interested in telling a feel-good story about vanquishing those males who control women's bodies and minds as he is in exploring power dynamics. Whallen, the director of some of the bloodier Saw movies and Insidious, wants to scare us into understanding taking revenge against manipulative people.
This is nothing like the 1937 Invisible Man film from James Whale, who also directed Frankenstein as part of Universal Pictures' great 1930s collection of horror features (Dracula and The Wolf Man among them). Whale put the emphasis on the monster stalking the poor female unequipped to handle his invisible ferocity.
Whannell has invented something entirely differentand in the process has made one of the better U.S. films of 2020. Some may complain that it is too vengeful and follows standard horror tropes. But with Moss allowing us to get inside her head and Whannell skillfully allowing the film to build in emotion, this Invisible Man is entirely new.