There’s almost always a wildness behind Elisabeth Moss’ eyes, no matter who she’s playing. That quality energizes The Invisible Man, a modern update of the 1933 Universal horror classic of the same name. Moss plays Cecilia Kass, the abused partner of a controlling tech entrepreneur who is developing advanced optics technology—and apparently watching 1944’s Gaslight on his down time.
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3, Upgrade), The Invisible Man opens with an intensely quiet sequence in which Cecilia tries to sneak out of bed from her emotional captor, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), in the middle of the night. As Cecilia tiptoes through his massive, modernist, seaside mansion, trying to be invisible herself, the camera passively watches from a distance—panning to an empty hall at one point and holding on it, a technique Whannell employs throughout to tease us about who or what might be standing unseen in a supposedly unoccupied space.
This opening sequence begins with a shot of Cecilia lying in bed with Adrian’s arm insinuatingly stretched across her waist. Her eyes pop open, and that wildness is there. It’s an expression of fear, but also fire—a combination Moss manages particularly well. Cecilia is leaving for good this time, and she’s going to employ every ounce of her fierce intelligence to do it.
I won’t spoil how that sequence ends, or much else about The Invisible Man, as there are a handful of shocking twists that prove to be among the movie’s harrowing pleasures. The best scenes are the early ones, when Cecilia begins to suspect that Adrian is invisibly stalking her and the filmmaking subtly backs her up. (A simple shot in which a corner partially obscures the frame, mimicking the perspective of someone watching Cecilia in the next room, is chilling.) As things escalate, the terror becomes more palpable; when an unseen villain like this attacks, the fight scenes play more like possessions.
As in Gaslight, however, Adrian’s abuse involves mind games—like removing Cecilia’s architecture drawings from her portfolio before a big job interview. As Cecilia grows more hysterical, with little physical evidence to back up her fears, her friends and family begin to wonder if she might be suffering from a mental breakdown. The Invisible Man then opens itself into a timely metaphor about believing women who make charges against powerful men.
Which brings us back to the wildness. What begins as an expression of fear transforms into one of paranoia and then—when Cecilia feels abandoned and alone—it devolves into desperation and self-doubt. Moss shifts into another gear for the truly disturbing finale, when those eyes flicker with thoughts of revenge and events unfold in a way that remind us that Whannell’s big break was as the screenwriter of Saw. The Invisible Man ends on a nasty note, but then again the 1933 film was nasty too. Given the omnipotent power of invisibility, humans apparently do their worst.