The Bay Area, 3 in the morning. One of those yuppie homes where a whole wall is a window looking out onto the beach. A young woman is awake, and carefully removes the arm of the sleeping body which is clinging onto her. She checks that the glass of solvent Benzadrine has been drunk by her comatose partner. Satisfied that he is out for the count, she sneaks out.
Easier said than done. She still has to turn off the security cameras and find the password that knocks out the alarms. Then there’s a ten foot wall to scale before leaping into the car of the woman waiting outside. But the dog has woken up her partner, and he rushes out and grabs at her, smashing his hand through the car’s passenger window. They speed off in fear.
These are the opening scenes of The Invisible Man, a semi-franchise horror film with much more ambition than most of its contemporaries. The main subject is gaslighting – how a manipulative man makes his partner thinks that she’s responsible for her own unhappiness within a dissatisfying relationship. It stars Elizabeth Moss and the acting is largely great.
Yes, there is a “but” coming up, but let’s talk about the good things for a little. Moss plays Cecilia, the woman who is fleeing her bigshot scientist abusive husband Adrian. She is clearly traumatized and it takes weeks before she even can go outside to the mail box. Then she is summoned by Adrian’s brother, a lawyer, who tells her that he has killed himself and left her a load of money.
But strange little things keep on happening. A blanket that is covering Cecilia falls off the bed. When she tries to tug it back she sees a footprint. Cecilia’s an architect and goes to a job interview, but the sketches that she packed the night before mysteriously go missing. Sydney, the daughter of the friend who took Cecilia in, is slapped by an invisible hand, but everyone thinks it was Cecilia.
Cecilia becomes convinced – let’s not trouble ourselves to ask why – that Adrian faked his own death and has found the way of making himself invisible. Naturally, everyone else thinks she’s gone a bit doolally, and when her sister meets a very public accident, Cecilia cops the blame and is interned in a psychiatric institution, awaiting charges of murder.
This is all laudable stuff – and its great that what is essentially a horror film is prepared to try so hard to make social commentary. The trouble is that The Invisible Man falls between two stools – it is too unbelievably risible for us to take what it is trying to say seriously, and yet its sense of its own importance is way too high for us to just sit back and enjoy a schlocky horror film.
There is one scene, very early on, which could determine whether you’re prepared to be a little indulgent. Cecilia is explaining Adrian’s abuse to her sister and a friend. And yet she doesn’t have to words to express it. They encourage her, asking whether he was violent. “Yes, but much more”, she says, then we move to something else.
There are several different ways of viewing that scene. Is everything so horrific that the director wants us to leave it to our imaginations? Is Cecilia’s trauma so shocking that she is unable to express her terrible experiences? Well, maybe, but it just came across to me as the work of a lazy scriptwriter who thinks that its sufficient to just tell us something bad happened. As we have received the necessary signifier, he doesn’t have to waste time thinking up any difficult describing words.
What this means is that when we do observe Cecilia being gaslit, it is by a strange man in an electronic costume which makes him invisible, except for the odd occasion where the narrative requires us to see him. This is divorced from any conception of what the world is really like, so all the righteous talk of abuse belongs in someone else’s world. I find that this trivialises a serious subject.
Because let’s be clear, this is not a film that has spent a lot of time on a script that resembles how real people talk or on a plot without gaping holes. We’re in a world where a magic cloak doesn’t just confer invisibility, but also superhuman strength and the ability to hack someone’s e-mail account. Where a woman’s friends can all be convinced that she’s lost her mind, but when she rings them in the middle of the night warning of impending death, they’ll suddenly believe her to be the lodestone of rationality.
None of this would matter if this were “just” a dumb sci-fi movie, but the fine intentions of telling us about the horrors of gaslighting require a more credible medium. Cecilia’s world is just so far away from our own for us to see her problems as being directly connected with our everyday life.
Nonetheless there is a certain pace, and (unlike everyone in our party) I was prepared to go with it and overlook the flaws, at least until the final twist. This required us to believe that a slight woman could control the body movements of someone twice her size. You can imagine the smug faces sat around the script room table, congratulating each other on their “clever” ending. For me it was just the last straw that beggared belief, and felt just too disrespectful to the serious subject matter which is demeaned by the plot’s overall silliness.
In a word, it was hokum. Well-acted hokum, but hokum all the same.