Synopsis: Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), an aspiring architect, is trapped in an abusive relationship with the super-wealthy Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Griffin is a world leader in the field of visual optics. He lives in what appears to be a large mansion type house, on the coast of San Francisco. He has a high-tech security system in it, which includes cameras that record activity in every room. There is also something else in the house, that will allow for a reign of terror that is chillingly sick. Cecelia plots an escape, but her newly found freedom doesn’t last long . . .
The plot begins with Cecilia escaping from the house she is being kept a prisoner in, by her partner. It is the middle of the night and she sneaks away, clearly having planned this for some time. She must be careful not to wake her partner, who she seems so terrified of. To aid her escape she aligns the security cameras in the home, to her phone, presumably by internet linking them. She can keep an eye of whether her husband has woken up. This is a fairly solid start for the film and sets the tension up. The theme of psychological torment as a trope is immediately set. A cleverly crafted beginning, that neatly sets up the next stage in the plot, whilst giving viewers an idea of what to expect from what they’re watching. As she is leaving through the garage, she once again checks that Adrian is still sleeping. Just as she is about to go, she sees Adrian’s pet Doberman, who begins to whine at her leaving. She empathizes, acknowledging her own experiences of manipulation, and attempts to remove what appears to be one of those cruel collars that have an inbuilt capability to send jolts of mild electric shock through the dog’s body. This shows a desire for Adrian to control things. Well worked in, as a way to show his character. Audiences begin to know who he is before he is even seen awake on screen. The dog clumsily bumps into a car in the garage, and the alarm goes off. Cecelia has to dash, apologizing to the dog.
A few minutes later, once Cecilia is over the tall wall of the house, another impressive device to cast the house as a jail, she is by the roadside. There are lights on in the house now, and the assumption is that Adrian Soon, she sees car headlights, not far off. They race towards her. The car stops and she gets in. She has asked to be collected. As she instructs the driver to get off as fast as possible. Then, Griffin smashes his hand through the passenger side. It’s here that the stereotypical view of domestic violence is cemented, as the central premise of Adrian Griffin’s character arc. Yes, there are those who go to these extents and having such sorts depicted on-screen should wield any real-life abusers any sympathy. What’s problematic is that Cecilia’s experience does not reflect the nuanced way in which many people report domestic abuse. It is not wholly physical, or even psychological to the extreme extent that is depicted here. That jarred a little and made what might have been a more reality-based, contemporary exploration of abuse, more a carbon copy of behavior depicted by Patrick Bergin Sleeping With The Enemy (1991). Hollywood really hasn’t come that far in using tropes that are deeply sensitive topics as convenient plot devices.
Once Cecilia is away from her tormentor, the real horror of the story begins — at least what viewers get to see. Griffin has apparently died. A clever trick made possible by his cunning and well-honed manipulation skills. This idea works, as it’s important to remember this is a modern-fictitious take on a work of classic fiction. by H.G Wells. In Wells’s original story, the main character, known only as Griffin, is depicted as unstable and violent. Adrian Griffin reflects that well, but with a different take on where the violence stems from. Cecelia begins to experience things that only she can see. As such, those around her begin to question her sanity and put it down to the trauma she has gone through. It’s here that at least some nuance works, in terms of representing the absolute loneliness of self-containment, and the fact that experiences that impact the emotions severely are felt in isolation. The big theme of “gaslighting” comes into play and whilst the physical presence is apparent (though not visible on screen), it’s always the mind of Griffin that is most haunting, and his hold over Cecilia. Another part the writers got right was the underlying weakness of Griffin, as a deeply insecure narcissist, who can’t want Cecilia back. Again, to be fair, despite the lack of nuance overall in the depiction of abuse, and the lack of much-needed sensitivity, at least he is shown for what he is, and Cecilia is in no way inadvertently blamed. Griffin’s obsession gives him his typical antagonist’s motive, to get something back, in his case Cecilia; this sets the rest of the plot up as a cat and mouse chase, with some devastating twists, as Cecilia must rely on her wits and determination to find a way back from the hell that she is being out through — her role as protagonist is clearly laid out — her motive is escape. By the end of the film, once the two opposing forces clash, repeatedly, there are deeds done that can not be undone, and Cecilia is forever changed.
Elisabeth Moss has to take all the credit for her performance. As stated, the writing may be without diversity, stereotypical and lacking a basis in lived experience, but an actor can only go from what they are given. She rises to the challenge of each scene’s demands, whether she is experiencing mortal terror (which she does, many times), or suddenly turns the experience into an understandable outburst of anger, as she is repeatedly doubted and silenced. She flips the switch in a second, and the result is a believable portrayal of her character’s plight. Without Moss’s intensity and absolutely immersive performance, the film would surely have been the lesser. It isn’t just emotional scenes she does well. It’s important to acknowledge that, as in many ways her performance outperforms the writing of her character, who is a woman reduced. When she somehow finds the strength to keep fighting back, she’s involved in some well-choreographed action scenes. Moss could just as easily be in a gung-ho action flick, at times. her running and jumping moments are as strong as any, with athleticism and power. An ability to carry herself tall is present, and there are also times when she gets to show she can show more than one side to her character. Despite the terror, she manages to show that even in the throes of despair, humans have a way to laugh at silly things (she inadvertently burns eggs she is cooking, and jokingly says to her niece is the food salvageable). Following this starring role, it would not be at all surprising to see her go on to gain much bigger roles, far more regularly. She’s certainly proved she is worthy of them. Moss made what an otherwise mostly forgettable and generic character, the centre of the story, at all times. A well-rounded spin on what another actor may have only managed to make a cringing plot device.
The character of Adrian Griffin is much more of a presence by the way he is written. For understandable and largely self-explanatory reasons, Oliver Jackson Cohen is absent for most of the film. When he is seen at the start of the story, he is asleep, then only re-appears as he breaks through the window of the car that Cecilia is escaping in. From then on in, it’s only his voice that’s heard, sporadically. There’s really little to go off, by way of him performing a character study of Griffin. The film simply isn’t about him and his experiences, in the same way, that it’s about the woman who he is terrorising. He does have a “big scene” at the end of the film and it’s only then that he can be really assessed. It’s fair to say that when he does appear “in the flesh” so to speak, he does make an impression. It’s not the sort of on-screen dominance that you would want, though. A character that has largely been absent has to try and make up for that when they are actually viewed. Sadly, that’s not the case, but it’s not terrible either. Cohen’s skill in showing a person who is living in denial from the limits of their own existence is not without the all-important attributes of chilling calmness. He captures the capacity for his character to fly into a rage at any point. The imbalance between flat refusal to or whether he has an inability to accept responsibility for his evil deeds is crucial to get right. He does, in fairness. The brief was to express narcissism, sociological and pathological terror, and a desire to control, at all costs. Job done. Not in any sense deserving of any great accolade, and certainly not a performance that steals the limelight from Moss, but still, a worthy effort, in what was a tough ask.
The supporting cast do their job. No real making of names for themselves. Harriett Dyer is Emily Kass, the sister of Cecelia, who has to watch the chaos from a slightly removed position. She keeps a sense of empathy, and shows good understanding, despite the fact she has not been through what her sister’s enduring. As a character that has to eventually choose between her sister and her family, Dyer makes the tough call well. Her scenes with Moss, one in particular, in the restaurant, hold their own. That’s not easy to do. Aldis Hodge is the obligatory cop, James Lanier, that has promised to do all he can to protect Cecelia. He also ends up having to make a tough call, as Griffin frames Cecilia as the wrong-doer. Lanier is concerned for the well-being of his daughter, Sydney (also Emily’s daughter). Hodge portrays the character as sympathetic, but understandably protective of his daughter. Storm Reid does a good job of being the only younger actor to get screen-time, and brings a youthful vulnerability to the story, and interacting with much more seasoned actors without difficulty. The only other important role is Tom Griffin, played by Michael Dorman. He is Adrian’s brother and whilst he isn’t in the film much and has no scenes of great significance, he does get across that he has lived a life under the awful control and influence if his evil brother. Those who have a part to play all add, in their own way, but Moss’s dominance is never under any threat.
Aside from Moss’s excellent performance, that should be mentioned frequently, the most consistently strong bit of the film was the way it was put together. This wasn’t a massive, CGI affair. Yes, it was hardly made on a shoe-string, but the way it was managed was intelligent. Great time had been spent to get the “big baddy” right. The chosen method of invisibility was all the more creepy because it was at least grounded in the science of the future, and not some sort of magic potion. Not to say a suit like the one from the film will be available any time soon, but it did give things away to comment on how technology is an increasingly influential force in our lives. It isn’t just the suit, that Adrian Griffin develops. The internet-based CCTV system at the start of the film, that can be viewed by phone-screens, and the awful collar on the poor dog. Everything is selected carefully, to show that in many ways certain aspects of technology are really just physical manifestations of the human capacity and desire to want to control and command. Evidently, this is not accidental and is where Leigh Whannell comes into his own. He has married the story concepts and script with the exposition. There is a subtlety to things, that perhaps comes about as a direct result of Whannell being both writer and Editor. There is a measure to the scenes that helps to make the jumps jumpy and the scares scary.
Car chases. Any film that relies on a person being pursued, relentlessly, has at least one. With so many great ones in films, it might seem no effort has to be made to put together a good one. Whannell makes the final car-chase in his film, as Cecilia races to the rescue, one that seems real. No James Bond stunts or clumsy mistakes in depicting realism. There is danger and a very real feeling that Cecilia might crash. Everything relies on her not crashing. What comes across is the link between excessive speed needed to get where she is, the outer “concrete” example of desire, and the frantic feelings she has, of what will happen of she doesn’t get there. The result is an impressive marriage of action and state of mind, as the two fuses and at times are one and the same. It’s not sports cars, either, or even vehicles that travel well when they are driven at dangerous velocities. Everyday cars are used, which are standard family vehicles, converted into necessary symbols of tension. This a further example of efforts of trying not to make a film that is set in a real setting seem too far-fetched. It works, Whannell keeps the sense of pacing a work of fiction needs, but still allows you to feel that you are in the scene.
Depictions of on-screen violence are generally varied. Greatly so. Depending on whether or not the film wants to appeal to a young, younger, or adult audience. This film is rated a 15, and it must be said that the absolute limits of what allows for that rating have been pushed. Perhaps the nature of the violence and the motive behind it are the reason it seems arguable that it should be an 18. Debatable, certainly. Regardless, when Griffin strikes, he does so with absolute force. The expression of his rage is such that it doesn’t feel measured, but much more a release of pent up frustration. Again, Whannell recognizes that good storytelling needs to match action with character, and as a result he shows that the weaponry of Griffin is his mind, and his body (invisible due to the suit he dons which makes it possible) is always secondary to the proceedings. It makes for unease and grimacing within such scenes, that is his intent achieved.
First and foremost, Moss makes this film. No mistake. Whannell has brought an interesting idea to the screen and on the surface a feasible way to make it work, in a modern setting. However, The belligerence around abuse stays, leaving a nasty taste in the mouth. It’s not really possible to move beyond that, and it is a shame, as there was scope here to do something more, and speak to a wider audience about it. Not discounting it means focusing on other aspects of the film, which are nuanced and make for a riveting experience. The essence of H.G Wells’ character has been kept and that’s important. It isn’t just a film that uses invisibility to tell a story. This is an adaptation, albeit one that veers off from the original novel. That’s alright though, as inspiration is the way here, not a reproduction. Something to keep an eye out for are the cleverly worked in visual references of the previously depicted appearances of the classic Invisible Man. The long-coated wanderer with sunglasses, the bandage-clad escapee. One of the better efforts of recent years, to re-install Universal Monsters to the big screen, and if others follow suit, then there’s hope yet for the scares of yesteryear to once again strike, haunting audiences with a fusion of classic and Modern Gothic ideas.
- Incidental Music8.3