Genre Mastery and True Terror: Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man is a rare breed of genre film. When critics use the term ‘genre film’, it’s typically shorthand for a disreputable subset of genres; sure, serious adult dramas and historical biopics are genres, but they’re never described as ‘genre films.’ But I’m using the term quite deliberately to describe Leigh Whannell’s third film because it refuses to settle into one genre. Beginning as a horror film before evolving into a paranoiac thriller and, eventually but briefly, an action film, The Invisible Man is a showcase for its writer-director’s obvious love for genre cinema and control of the associated craft.

If you saw Upgrade, that shouldn’t be a surprise. What distinguished Upgrade from its revenge-action counterparts was its obvious understanding of how the key conventions of the genre twist towards inevitability. Pretty much every revenge-driven action movie operates the same way: bad things happen to our protagonist, and they work their way through a series of bad guys (often, an entire criminal organisation) step-by-step before defeating – or, occasionally, being defeated by – the big bad. Essentially, once events are in motion, the narrative arc is on rails, and the protagonist can never choose to get off the train (reasonably enough; once you start killing mafia members, for instance, you can’t really go back to kicking back on the couch over reality television.) Whannell cleverly made the actual antagonist of Upgrade the machinery of such inevitability, giving the tropes of the genre a voice and agency – and, in the process, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of what make these films work.

The Invisible Man is an even more impressive achievement. In part, that’s because of the level of difficulty. The film reimagines the famous villain as a spectre of domestic violence, an incredibly powerful, incredibly cruel man who fakes his own death and assumes a shroud of invisibility to torment and torture his partner, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss). This isn’t an allegory of domestic violence; it’s simply a domestic violence film from the opening frame to the closing credits. Within this context, Whannell exercises his extensive expertise in genre conventions to embody the disempowered, terrifying reality of being trapped in a toxic, violent relationship.

For the opening third or so of the film, this is a haunted house movie. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio pans to empty corridors or lingers on empty rooms. This isn’t just to evoke the fear of an invisible antagonist lurking, unseen, to but to acknowledge that Cecilia’s trauma leaves her with an ever-present sense of peril even in seemingly safe spaces. That’s made explicit throughout; the same cinematic grammar is used when Cecilia escapes her partner, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Having secretly drugged him, her attempts to silently slip out of their imposing mansion is filmed with frequent ominous pans to anticipate his appearance. When she’s hiding out her friend, James’ (Aldis Hodge’s) house, that trauma is realised through agoraphobia that sees her unable to even collect mail from the letterbox.

The haunted house construction – in addition to being heart-poundingly terrifying – also allows Whannell to cleverly recalibrate the core of that genre. Haunted house movies are about the perversion of domesticity, but typically that’s realised in a very suburban, middle-class fashion – whether it’s the fear of home invasion or the fear of the less fortunate you’ve displaced (see: Indian burial grounds and the like). Here, the perversion of domesticity is centred in the household; what could be a more frightening corruption of domestic safety than a destabilising violent presence at the centre of the family unit? It’s not as though Whannell is the first to align this genre with domestic violence, but combined with his evident craft in the genre, it’s a white-knuckle effective approach.

Around a third of the way into the film, The Invisible Man shifts gears. It’s not an arbitrary shift. When Adrian stops exploiting his invisibility for devious torment and moves into outright violence – choking Cecilia and throwing her around the kitchen – it’s clear that the subtler filaments of the haunted house genre are no longer appropriate. Now sure that Adrian is alive and invisible – but unable to convince friends, family or authority figures without any kind of proof – the film assumes the features of a thriller.

(Side note: though one of Adrian’s main modes of torture is gaslighting Cecilia, The Invisible Man thankfully avoids playing with the ‘is she crazy or is this really happening’ trope so common in similar thrillers; it’s clear from very early on that there is an invisible presence in the house. While I’m a big fan of that trope done right, it would be exploitative at best to apply to a film about domestic violence where gaslighting is so often part of an abuser’s modus operandi.)

As much as I was entranced by the film’s haunted house approach, the shift to thriller is both smart and necessary. Sustaining Cecilia’s helplessness for any longer would be a disservice to the character; she’s hardly going to just go to sleep once she knows that her abusive partner is lurking in her room (though, of course, this is the reality for those trapped in abusive relationships). There’s a terrifying series of scenes as Cecilia tries to convince her loved ones of the truth, but is consistently undermined by Adrian’s machinations – whether it’s sending abusive emails to family members from her account, or making it appear as though she’s attacking her friends’ children.

Again, Whannell is taking the core of a genre, and rather than trying to reinvent it, simply calibrating its core towards his goals as a storyteller. The best thrillers are about disempowerment; a protagonist who knows the truth but is unable to do anything about it because of power structures that refuse to listen or act. In a society where women are consistently punished for trying to escape abuse, being pushed towards homelessness or worse, it’s terrifyingly effective.

It’s only really in the last half hour or so of the film that Whannell’s mastery of genre stumbles a little. After Cecilia has been relegated to a psychiatric hospital – a common destination for thriller protagonists – the film again shifts. This time, it transforms into an action film, as an invisible antagonist dispatches a series of security guards as Cecilia attempts to escape her plight. Technically, these scenes are undeniably engaging; Whannell demonstrated a knack for original action sequences in Upgrade, and that talent is on full display here.

What limits this section of the film somewhat is the evaporation of tension that had been building throughout. Action films are exciting, but fundamentally built around agency. All of a sudden, Cecilia feels less imperilled, more empowered. That’s a deliberate choice – The Invisible Man, though unafraid of pulling its punches, isn’t as bleak as it could have been – but the synchronicity between theme and genre tropes evident in the first two thirds of the film is undermined. I think that ultimately makes for a more enjoyable film, but perhaps a darker approach would have made for a better film – if one I wouldn’t have been in any hurry to watch again.

I’ve been praising Leigh Whannell for a thousand straight words now, but it’s worth taking a moment to single out the work of Elisabeth Moss. It’s not surprising that she’s excellent here – she always is – but it’s hard to imagine The Invisible Man working so well without her commitment to her character. So much of the film is just spent watching Moss interact with effectively nothing, and yet there’s never a false note. Her complete embodiment of the immense pressures and past traumas weighing on Cecilia ensures that the film works as well as it does.

4 stars

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