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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, March 6, 2020

Critic's Corner: Studio recycles a monster worth seeing with ‘Invisible Man’




Cecilia Kass opens her eyes at night and slowly lifts her bedcovers to reveal a man’s arm wrapped around her. As she removes the arm and eases up, her expression tightens.

Cecilia might be free of her boyfriend’s grasp, but beyond the bed are the walls of his home, and beyond those, the walls that enclose his property, and beyond those, an ocean and a forest.

Wealthy scientist Adrian Griffin has trapped Cecilia within more than a physical prison, though; he’s also locked her in an emotional cell from which she’s determined to escape.

On the surface, “The Invisible Man” is a well-made thriller about a narcissist who (mild spoiler) fakes his death and then returns like an unseen phantom to haunt his girlfriend. But you don’t have to dig deep to see it’s also an intelligent essay on how a man can manipulate and harm a woman in an abusive relationship.

The hostile environment in which Cecilia lives extends to the outside world. Once free from Adrian, she applies for work at an architectural firm. During the interview, the male owner makes an inappropriate comment about her looks. As she sidesteps his remark, all the employees in the background are women.

Because of her dilemma, Cecilia is an immediately sympathetic protagonist. But as she becomes convinced Adrian is alive, her friends begin to doubt her sanity.

Like everything about the film’s clever narrative, their reaction makes sense. If a woman who’s just escaped an abusive relationship insists her tormentor is sitting in an empty chair across the room, would you believe her or think she was mentally damaged?

The late Gene Siskel, film critic for the Chicago Tribune, would review a movie by suggesting the kind of film he wished it had been. While “The Invisible Man” is perfect as is, I’d like to see a thriller in which the audience is as unsure about the protagonist’s sanity as her friends are.

As it is, viewers are generally one step ahead of everyone, including Cecilia, due to the smart direction of Leigh Whannell. He shoots the film like Adrian is visible, looking down empty corridors before panning to where Cecilia sits alone, peering at chairs and couches and peeking around corners.

In one scene, Whannell even shows when Cecilia is wrong about where she thinks Adrian is. As the staff at a treatment center questions Cecilia, she gazes at a wall, certain Adrian is standing there. Then Whannell focuses on the empty space behind Cecilia, reinforcing the notion that she’s surrounded by opposing forces.

Later, Whannell pulls the rug out from under the audience during an attack at a police station. Suddenly, viewers don’t know where Adrian is, and neither do the responding officers.

As Adrian takes them out one at a time, the camerawork is calculated and inventive, and Whannell keeps the audience unbalanced while tracking the violence with visually stunning swivels and turns.

Whannell displayed these skills in their embryonic form with his 2018 sci-fi thriller “Upgrade.” Here, they are fully developed, and Whannell deploys them with confidence and skill.

Also lending tremendous talent to “The Invisible Man” is Elizabeth Moss, who plays Cecilia. I’ve admired Moss since first seeing her as Don Draper’s secretary on “Mad Men,” but her depth and emotional range continue to surprise me.

She really sells what the audience knows to be panic and fear but everyone else thinks is madness, and her portrayal of Cecilia as perceptive and resourceful pays off on the long run.

Universal Pictures has a gallery of classic movie monsters that are ripe for repurposing for modern audiences. The studio’s first shot at tapping into this valuable resource was “The Mummy,” the 2017 Tom Cruise vehicle that tried and failed to launch a cinematic universe.

That was a bad movie. But I believe Universal has found a groove with “The Invisible Man,” a smart, standalone thriller that lures viewers to the theater with a simple but entertaining concept and then delivers a culturally relevant story. Here’s hoping the studio continues in that vein.